In this episode, Dan welcomes back Jessica to discuss all things scholarships, opportunities for rural students, and the impending sticker shock of college tuition. You'll also hear from a donor directly about her experience setting up a scholarship in honor of a loved one and her plans to build an endowment that supports education in perpetuity. Lastly, two former Oklahoma City Community Foundation scholarship recipients look back on the impact the gift of education has had on their academic journey.
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Dan Martel:You're listening to Creating Impact Through Giving, a podcast brought to you by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation providing you with the stories, techniques and tools around impactful giving.
On this show, we'll talk to donors, professional advisors, nonprofit leaders and our team of experts to identify charitable strategies that have resulted in some of our most impactful gifts.I’m Dan Martel and welcome back to Creating Impact Through Giving. Today we’re going to be talking a little bit about scholarships. And here is something for our listeners to know, that’s kind of interesting: The Oklahoma City Community Foundation is the state’s largest provider of independent scholarships! And we also allow donors to create their own scholarships or contribute to one that already exists. And creating a scholarship can be quite the legacy to leave behind and it’s certainly one that can create quite an impact in our community. My guests today are Jessica Schwager. Jessica Schwager is the head of the scholarship department here at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. Jess, we’re going to welcome you back to the show!
Jessica Schwager: Thank you so much for having me back, Dan.
Dan: And Kelly Epperson, welcome!
Kelly: Thank you for inviting me.
Dan: Jess, I want to learn a little bit more about what you do here at the Foundation and let our listeners know kind of where you came from and how you got here. So, I understand you came from a large university system?
Jess: Yes, I was at a larger university system, as you said, for about eight years. I was working in a small scholarships department there and we kind of grew over time as the need for scholarships became more evident at the university and a need for kind of a centralized scholarship application. So that’s kind of my background, it’s helping to create scholarship applications and working at a scholarship department. So with my background, that really kind of translated to what we do here in our work here at the Foundation with scholarship and I think one of the primary reasons that made this job so attractive to me is that the Oklahoma City Community Foundation also uses AcademicWorks which is this online system for collecting scholarship applications. And so it was really easy because I already used that at the university I was at and I could kind of transition into that here and then just automatically jump right in and help the team with that.
Dan: How do you get students interested in the first place thinking about college? I mean, let alone applying for and qualifying for scholarships. What are we doing right now to get students eager to get out there, to want to go to college?
Jess: Right and I think a lot of times students, or just from my experience, students will have an idea of what college they want to go to but the sticker shock of college is just, it's crazy. They have no idea how much it costs, so they have this passion to go to OU, that's where their parents went, that's where they wanted to go, but then they kind of see how much tuition and fees cost. So I think that that's really important for organizations like us to come in to kind of help them defer those costs a little bit. So they might qualify for financial aid, they might qualify for scholarships at their school but then we're a different organization that they can apply for scholarships to and then be able to kind of help with that price of college and make college more affordable for them.
Dan: Well that’s great, you know, you answered my next question, but I want to further that and talk about the rising cost of college today and that kind of thing. You know we talked a couple weeks ago and when you’re going to a college fair or something or to a university to set up what exactly do you bring and what are you talking to students about?
Jess: Yes, so there are four of us on our team that go out to these college fairs. So usually here in about a few weeks there will be a release of all the different college fairs across the entire state of Oklahoma. What we do if we identify the dates that we're going to go and then we kind of split up those days amongst all of us. What we're really trying to do is focus on the college fairs where we will have the most impact, so the most amount of students who will be going to these. We try to look for those large college fairs that we can go to and what we do is... we’re alongside every college that's in the state of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas. All of these admissions counselors will come to these college fairs and then we sit alongside those counselors and while they're kind of talking about their school and trying to sell their school we’re here just to say, hey you want to go to your dream school? Then come to us and we can help you apply for scholarships, here's where you go. And a sort of typical table it looks like, we have promotional materials, links to our website and then we always give out our business card because we know that sometimes scholarship applications are just hard to navigate for students that have no idea. They've never done this before, so we hand out our business cards and then we say, hey, contact us when it's time to apply and we will help guide you through that process 100%.
Dan: This is sort of a random question but I'm just curious to know because, you know, I mentioned earlier for our relationship: we are the largest independent givers of scholarships here across the state. How many scholarships do you offer?
Jess: Yes, so last year we ran some numbers. We have about 180 scholarships that we offer. There are 150 of those that are through our online system where students go to apply and for the other additional 30, they're typically a college using some sort of nomination process or paper application process, but for the most part about 150 of those are in our online system. And then this last year, we awarded right around 800 students with scholarships.
Dan: Well I would think that that alone creates quite an impact.
Jess: It does.
Dan: I want to talk a little bit about donors and people who really set up scholarships because I know, a lot of people will set up a scholarship in memory or in honor of a loved one and one of our guest today is Kelly Epperson - were going to talk to Kelly about the scholarship that her family set up. How do you do that? How do they go about doing it?
Jess: Donors come to us in many different ways. Sometimes will be recommended to us by financial advisors. Sometimes they'll know about us because their student applied for scholarships and then maybe a loved one passed away and they decide that they wanted to set up a memorial for that person and then they reach out to us that way. And so we have many different ways that they would reach out to us. What we're doing is trying to start a conversation. We want to know, why are they passionate about education? What qualifications are they really looking for in a scholarship applicant? I know Joe Carter, our vice president of development, he gets with them and talks about the different options of giving because we have so many different ways that donors can truly give to us. I think a lot of times donors think that they need to have this lump sum of cash that they need to come in with and set up a scholarship and that's not the case at all. We have different revenues for that. One of our most popular ones is actually IRA rollover, especially for scholarships. We have a donor right now, who has started two scholarships and that was just every year, she was rolling over her IRA into the scholarship accounts and was able to build up to two scholarships in a matter of a couple of years. We have so many different options for that.
Dan: And the interesting thing is, a lot of these scholarships are in perpetuity. That is always going to be there for students for years to come.
Jess: That’s correct, yes, that's absolutely correct. In fact, something that I was actually sharing with Kelly Epperson whenever she set up her scholarship...her scholarship was in memory... really, it's the Epperson Family Memorial Scholarship, so it's really in memory of their whole family. But when she came to us after her husband had passed away, something I shared with her is actually that my parents set up a scholarship whenever my brother passed away. However, they didn't know about this endowment, so they didn't know about endowments, that they even existed. So whenever he passed away, they put in his obituary to send in memorial gifts, so it was great because they could collect all these memorial gifts and then give out scholarships, but once they were done giving out that finite amount of money, then that scholarship went away. And so I really like the option of giving to an endowment because if they would have known about that, I mean, right now, they could still be awarding that scholarship to students, and so, I think that that it is a really, really neat way to honor the memory of somebody after somebody passes away.
Dan: Well and also, to your point, too, Jessica. It is an incredible way for someone to look at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and really understand what they're getting ready to do because they probably don't realize that you have the option to create a lifelong scholarship for students. I think you’re right, I think the endowment is certainly the way to go and I just want more of our listeners to understand that. There's a huge advantage of coming here to start something. And from what I understand, you don't need a lot of money to to kick this thing off, right?
Jess: Correct. Our scholarships do start at $40,000 for a fully-endowed scholarship where they get to set forth all the criteria for that scholarship. So, that's at $40,000. But I mean we have scholarships right now...there was one that was just set up in a memorial and they asked for memorial gifts to come in and already it's climbed to almost $17,000 in just a matter of a week. So, I know that number seems high right now, but there are so many different ways to give that to get to 40 is honestly, I mean that they could do that in a matter of months.
Dan: But what a gift to leave.
Jess: Absolutely, yes.
Dan: You know, you just talked about Kelly Epperson, she's going to be on a broadcast in just a little while. You did mention that she and her family started this scholarship in memory of her late husband. How does something like that happen? Did she know to come here?
Jess: Yes, so she was I think introduced to the Community Foundation through another one of our donors, who has a scholarship here. He had given to other scholarships for many years and then set up his own scholarship here. And then she came in and she met with me and actually the other person in our team, Rick Fernandez, he's the one who coordinates this other scholarship that I was talking about. So she met with us and it was a very informal conversation. I mean, what are your goals? What are you looking to do with the scholarship? We just told her a lot about what we do and how we manage the funds and how we would award the scholarships. So it's just really kind of an informal meeting where we got together and then, at that point in time, I think she decided to start the fund, okay let's get serious, what do I need to do? And that's when we brought in Joe Carter to talk kind of about the giving options. And so, yeah, just kind of an informal conversation to start with and it was an introduction from another donor.
Dan: You know, we’re really fortunate. We live in more of an urban city here, Oklahoma City, but you know, there’s a lot of students living in rural areas. I want to kind of talk a little bit about some of those students.
Jess: We have incredible opportunities for rural students. I'm a rural kid myself, town of 300 people, and honestly, if I would have known about the Community Foundation, we have a scholarship here called the Carolyn Watson [Opportunity] Scholarship, it would have been completely life-changing. The scholarship now is $12,000 per year for four years, I mean, that’s huge.
Dan: Yeah, that’s pretty significant.
Jess: Yeah, I mean if you’re talking about some of the state schools here, colleges, universities, typically, their cost of attendance is anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000, so if we're talking $12,000, that's a huge chunk right there. And the GPA requirements are about 3.0, so that's pretty obtainable for students once they get to college. And then we just provide program support, too. So if they're having questions they can contact me, too. I can definitely kind of help give them my perspective. Again, I'm a rural kid, too, so they can reach out to me and I'm happy to give them recommendations. We had a student last year who went to the University of Oklahoma and she's looking into journalism and I was really familiar with the department there and so I was able to connect her to Student Services there. So it’s just things like that, that is a unique thing. We're not just giving the money but we're also helping to provide advice to those students if they need it.
Dan: I’m glad you talked about the Carolyn Watson [Opportunity] Scholarship because we’re going to be talking to two of the recipients in today’s show. Jess, is there anything else that we need to know about scholarships... students wanting to apply, parents wanting to get their students to apply... What else can we do to encourage kids to know more about the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and to consider us as an organization when applying?
Jess: I would encourage students, parents, guidance counselors just to make the connection. I know we go out and we promote as much as we can but if they have questions about anything, we have a really highly specialized staff in scholarships that can help answer any questions they have. They can go on to her website, it’s really thorough, they can read about it on our website. But if they want to just make a connection, talk to somebody and talk through their ideas, absolutely do that and I would always encourage that. And then, I mean, the other thing is, for students, I'd say, apply. I mean, this past year we had close to about 5000 applications in our system and it's open to students from across the entire state and like I said, we’re awarding about 800 students per year, so if they have a complete application, they're moving on to the next round and that's a really good chance of getting a scholarship. You can't get a scholarship unless you apply, so I just really encourage students to apply and ask questions.
Dan: Well, that’s great. So occf.org, look up scholarships. Again, occf.org/scholarships, that’s where you want to go. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming back. I know we just had you on the last episode, but again we wanted to talk about scholarships this time and I think you gave us some insight and some knowledge that we probably didn't get from the last show. So thank you very much.
Jess: Thank you so much, Dan.
Dan: Let’s turn to Kelly Epperson. I want to give our listeners a little bit of information about you and then we’re going to jump into some questions and talk about scholarships. So you started the Epperson Family Scholarship to commemorate your late husband’s death, correct?
Dan: And I know Mr. Epperson was a board member with the Oklahoma Regional Foodbank, he sat on the board of Harding Charter Preparatory High School and you're honoring him with this Epperson Family Scholarship established through the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. So, for our listeners, this scholarship supports Harding Charter Prep High School graduates, who want to attend college or vocational school.
Dan: Okay. Let me just start with this. What influenced your decision to honor your husband's memory with a scholarship?
Kelly: Well my husband is the oldest of seven and he, and all six of his siblings, went to Harding, back when it was the original Harding High School. (Inaudible) And our son also attended Harding Charter Prep and graduated from there and our son started going there in the fall of 2010, no fall of 2009. From the time that he started going to school there and my husband got involved with the board, we talked about setting up a scholarship and the thing that held us back was, we never could decide how to determine how we would choose the recipient and so that was the determining factor. But when he passed away, I knew it was something that we talked about doing and it was something he wanted done, so my son I just decided to move forward with it.
Dan: Well I want to stay on the subject of your son. What was your son's name?
Dan: So I understand that Joseph is also a fund advisor, is that correct?
Dan: Okay. Why was it important to get your whole family involved? When you, you know, basically called it the Epperson Family Memorial Scholarship, why the whole family?
Kelly: I'm hoping, I don't know that it will happen, but I'm hoping that with it being about the whole family that his brothers and sisters, since they attended there also, will, you know, if they ever can financially contribute to it that, it will be something that's for all of them and not just for Wayne, even though he's the primary one right now.
Dan: I mean it can't get any better than that, right?
Kelly: (laughs) I hope.
Dan: So how did you come up with the criteria for the scholarship recipients?
Kelly: My son and I spent a lot of time talking about it. My husband was able to go to college on the GI bill and his family could not have paid for his college even though back then it was a lot cheaper than it is now. College made a huge difference in what he was able to do in his life and everything. And if my son says, you know, it's one thing to expect people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, but if they don't have any bootstraps, how can they do it? So we decided that we wanted to focus on people that might not qualify for, you know, the full tuition waivers that OU has or have some of the different ones that are all based on academics, because a lot of these students, especially the ones that go to Harding, it's a difficult high school. And with all the AP classes and everything, some of the kids don't make straight A's because they're having to work while they're going to school so their grades may not show all the things that other students' grades do. So, we wanted somebody that didn't actually come from a background where their parents were able to afford everything. We decided to try to pick on people that had what it takes to be successful but maybe didn't start out with such an easy position in life
Dan: You know, I want to talk about the beauty of your scholarship because one of the things I read about it was, you know, we have a lot of emphasis, we hear a lot of that from people saying you got to go to college and everybody has to go to college kind of thing. But your scholarships are also available for students who want to go to vocational school, too, is that correct? Let's talk a little bit about that because that's an important factor that nobody wants to talk about and it's very important that we have as many students that don't want to go to college to attend a voc school. I think that the fact that your scholarship is incredible for both of these two, let's talk a little bit about that.
Kelly: Well, my husband and I both, my husband has a master’s degree and I have a bachelor’s degree, so we both feel very strongly about the college environment but it's not the right thing for everybody. And the world will implode if everybody just has those kinds of degrees and, you know, we need people that are mechanics or tile layers are electricians or you know. My son also went to a vocational school and he's a chef and he loves it and so we wouldn't have wanted somebody to not be able to get the scholarship because they weren’t following that career path. I think that a lot of people out there wake up every day and they don't look forward to going to work and so if you have a calling and your right path for your life is to go to vocational school, you know, we want to help you do that. Whatever it takes.
Dan: That is an incredible scholarship. I hope that all you listeners out there hearing this, if you're in high school right now and you're hearing this podcast and you're not called to go to college, get in touch with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and let's look into the Epperson Family Scholarship because vocational schools are just as important, you're right. I want to talk a little bit about your current involvement with Harding Charter Prep high school. Tell me a little bit about that.
Kelly: Well my husband served on the governor’s board for nine years, so not just the three years that our son attended school there, but for nine years. And then since he passed away I have started serving on, it's not really a steering committee, but it's a committee where we work together to do fundraising for the school. We try to help make sure the school stays aligned with its original intent and everything. We love Harding, we love what it does. I don't know current statistics, but at one time about 70% of students there qualified for free or reduced lunch, so even though it's... if it’s not the top-ranked high school in the state, it’s in the top five and it's very academically challenging but yet they don't just take the cream of the crop. It's a charter school, so they have to take whoever. They don't get to pick and choose and we just truly, truly love the mission of Harding and the difference it makes in these kids’ lives. There are some of these children that, I'm sorry to the high school seniors, you are still children to me, but there are some of them, that, they'll be the first person to graduate from high school and dinner conversations didn't include college or vocational or whatever, you know. They just don't have that background, so that's what Harding tries to do is to open their eyes and say, you can go to college, you can go to a vocational school, you can do something after you graduate from high school other than just, you know.
Dan: Kelly, that is absolutely admirable. I mean, what an impact that you guys have created with this scholarship and, my gosh, what a legacy to your husband too. You know, one question I always have wondered, you know, when people are donors and they decide that I'm going to start a scholarship whether it's in memory of somebody or it's a certain cause that I'm passionate about or something like that. How would you like to see the impact of your scholarship grow over time?
Kelly: I hope that the students that receive this scholarship will always remember that somebody believed in them. When they get into a position that they can help others, that they will, and if they’re ever having moments of self-doubt, that they will remember somebody believed in them. When you're only awarding one scholarship at a time and clearly college has gotten so expensive that you know these scholarships don't pay for, you know, like a whole semester or anything, but it does make a difference. But just knowing that somebody believed in you is enough to make you keep going another day.
Dan: Now, that this scholarship fund has been set up for these very lucky Harding students, have you had recipients yet?
Kelly: No. We are awarding our first one July 18. Due to COVID, they had to postpone graduation, so at this point, as we’re recording, it should have already been presented but it hasn’t been yet. I do believe that the recipient has been made aware that she's receiving the scholarship and then my son and I are going to attend graduation and my son is going to present the scholarship to her. We have something to go along with the certificate and everything. And then my hope is through the years, I'll give each of the six siblings and opportunity to present, and some people want to do that and some people don't, and so if they don't want to, then they don't have to, but it cycles to the next one and then ultimately, once my son and all the siblings have done it, then I'll present that and then we'll just start to cycle over. We’re hoping that all the Eppersons will feel a tie to it, and if they don’t that’s fine, too, but we’re hoping that all seven of them, well six remaining, will feel like it includes them as well.
Dan: Well, clearly the Epperson Family has had quite an impact on Harding. I do want to ask you this when you let them know that you have started the scholarship fund for their graduating seniors, whether they want to go to college or vocational school what was their reaction? I’m just curious to know what their reaction was.
Kelly: Actually, they were the ones that got me in touch with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. My husband passed very unexpectedly, so we had not had time to talk about tributes... he wouldn't talk to me about that anyway, but when I was writing his obituary and letting friends know and everything, you know, in lieu of flowers, we wanted something a little bit longer lasting than flowers. And so, I just knew in my heart that this scholarship was the right thing, so we contacted Harding and we said, hey we want to do this. So people start sending in their donations to the school directly and then they called me and they said, were you wanting this to be a one-time scholarship or in perpetuity and I said, no, I want it to go on and on and on, and they said, we think that you need to get in touch with the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
Dan: I’m glad they knew about us!
Kelly: Yes! So they have another board member that Wayne actually sat on the board with, who has actually set up a scholarship through OCCF for his mother, honoring his mother. And so he actually came with me the very first time that I met Jessica and they held my hand through the whole process, but I was just so thrilled because I didn't know.
Dan: You know, the beauty of these scholarships, too, and I want people to know that are listening out there today, it's not like you need a lot of money to start one of these things. I mean I think our scholarships, you know, you can start small and they, the way we work here, you tend to accrue, you know, the dollars that go into that, so anybody can start something if they're passionate about it. So, this leads me to this next question which is, what would you tell other donors to encourage them about perhaps starting a scholarship fund?
Kelly: I would tell them, one, that if you do it through OCCF they take care of everything. They take care of the tax reporting, they take care of helping you choose the recipient. It was a very easy process. They help advertise, they help promote it, they help... I mean, I show up. (laughs) They literally did everything and Jessica was absolutely amazing cause I had tons of questions and it was clearly in a time in my life where, even when she answered them, the answers didn't necessarily stick because there was just, you know, it was like being hit by a train. And she was so patient and so, you know, they literally just take your hand and carry you through.
Dan: It really sounds like you've done a marvelous job. You've carried out a wish that your husband had, even while he was here, and the fact that he's probably looking down now going, yep, I knew she could do it. Right? Well, that's exciting. Thank you so much. Very, very happy to have you on the show today.
Kelly: Thank you for inviting me.
Dan: Thank you, Kelly, for being here. Much appreciated.
Dan: You have to speak to students directly in order to fully grasp the kind of life-changing impact a scholarship can have on a young person’s life. 25 years ago Carolyn Watson was the CEO of a company called Shamrock Bankshares. Growing up in a rural community, Carolyn realized early on, that students living in towns like hers oftentimes didn’t have the opportunity to attend college. So she made it her mission to start the Carolyn Watson Rural Oklahoma Community Foundation. Carolyn was a strong believer in the power of education. She established the Carolyn Watson Opportunity Scholarship, which is a four-year scholarship award up to $12,000 per year, offering rural students the chance to follow their dreams and pursue higher education. Recently, we sat down with two former recipients, Michaela Metts and Natalie Evans, so let’s hear from them directly about the impact the scholarship had on their college experience.
Natalie Evans: My name is Natalie Evans, I am a 2013 graduate of Fairview High School.
Michaela Metts: My name is Michaela Metts and I graduated from Durant High School in 2012 and that’s also the year that I was a recipient of the Carolyn Watson Opportunity Scholarship. I am about to complete pharmacy school at the University of Oklahoma at the end of this week.
Dan: By the time this episode is recorded, Michaela is already a graduate, so first of, a big congratulations to you, Michaela. But let’s hear about arguably the most exciting part, how they found out they’ve been awarded the $10,000 prize.
Natalie: So, I remember, whenever I first received news that I’ve been a recipient of the scholarship, I had just gotten home from theatre practice. I was really active in the arts whenever I was in high school. And I remember just, one, the first emotion was relief and then second, excitement. I knew that this was going to be a huge opportunity for me. And I knew that this was going to open a lot of doors for me.
Michaela: I was extremely excited. I remember I was walking in the hallway, I believe on my way to lunch in high school, when I got the phone call. And so I stopped, took the phone call and I was just elated. I almost did a dance right there in the hallway.
Dan: More than just a nice surprise in the middle of a school day, the scholarship really made a difference for Michaela and Natalie. Designed to remove barriers of entry to rural students, like living costs and other school-related expenses, the Carolyn Watson Opportunity Scholarship helps students focus on what’s most important. Here’s what Michaela had to say.
Michaela: I was able to live in the dorms because of the scholarship and that really, really changed my perspective, I feel like, on the whole college experience. Because the college that I went to was actually in my hometown, where I grew up, so I was otherwise going to live at home and I feel like being able to live in the dorms was a good way to become independent. And being able to have a job on campus actually helped me discover that I had a passion for teaching and so right now, I am going into a pharmacy residency in Norman but after that, I hope to pursue more training in academia and I’m still not sure what level I want to teach yet, if I want to teach an undergraduate level or if I want to teach pharmacy school but definitely that spark has been there ever since I had that teaching job on campus.
Dan: We asked Michaela and Natalie what they would say to Carolyn Watson if they had had the chance to meet her.
Natalie: The first thing I would do is give her a hug. Because really, her generosity has shaped the lives of so many students across Oklahoma and it’s opened the doors for so many people and it’s provided so many opportunities. And I truly wouldn’t be where I am today in my career or my education without that opportunity.
Michaela: So if I could speak to Carolyn Watson directly, I would definitely say, thank you so much, for creating this scholarship and for funding it and for making it available to rural applicants like me, because it definitely opened up a lot of opportunities. So I would say the scholarship was very aptly named. It let me explore a lot of different aspects of college and careers that I would not have otherwise.
Dan: So if you want to read more about Michaela and Natalie and other scholarship success stories, I suggest you pick up a copy of our brand new Scholarship Review, where we have told the tales of others that, like Carolyn Watson, have decided to give the gift of education. Thinking of creating your own scholarship? I can assure you, there are plenty more students like Natalie and Michaela out there waiting for their opportunity to pursue their academic dreams.
Creating Impact Through Giving is brought to you by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, a nonprofit that works with donors to create charitable funds that benefit our community both now and in the future.
If you want to be notified about future episodes, don’t forget to subscribe to our email newsletter at occf.org/subscribe. For all episodes and more information, visit occf.org/impact.
Thanks for listening today and I’d like to leave you with this: Everybody wants to create some kind of impact in your community – What would you like to do? Contact the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, and let us help you turn your legacy into a reality today. See you next time.