Can you tell us about yourself and how your background informs your approach to connecting local students with scholarships?
Kesa: I’m a native of Winston-Salem and a graduate of Carver High School, so I bring a very local perspective to this work. I’ve worked in higher education for more than 15 years: in the UNC School of the Arts financial aid office and in several roles at Forsyth Tech focused on enrollment trends, application processes, financial aid, advising, course registration, and connecting students to careers. Scholarships are a critical point of access for most students.
My grandmother and my grandfather both worked at Reynolds Tobacco, and my mom worked at Sara Lee Hosiery—two big businesses that put Winston-Salem on the map and helped create a booming middle class. My grandparents bought two homes and had a nice life working at Reynolds. My grandfather worked in the plant, and my grandmother worked in IT – she was such a pioneer as a Black woman working in that field in the 70’s. She obtained her degree from High Point University in her mid-forties, and when she graduated, she practically carried two-year-old me across the stage with her! She wanted to make sure her children and grandchildren felt empowered to go to college.
And I can say from my experience in higher education that it's not always the smartest students that graduate from college. It's the students who have a community rallying around them, supporting them to say, “you can do it, you are worthy.” Many of our students see us as part of their cheerleader ring. And it can be really inspiring to have people from your hometown who care about you, are coaching you on, and want to see the best in you.
"It's not always the smartest students that graduate from college. It's the students who have a community rallying around them, supporting them to say, 'you can do it, you are worthy.'"
Edna: I grew up in rural Surry County, went to Surry Central High School, and got a two-year degree from Surry Community College. I moved away to South Carolina, and when I returned to Elkin, jobs were not easy to find. While working in a physical therapy office, a friend mentioned that The Winston-Salem Foundation was looking for a receptionist. After a year, Kay Dillon, our director of student aid at the time, asked me to join her department, and I’ve been helping students for 26 years now!
My experience gives me the perspective that you don’t need a four-year degree to be productive and give back to your community. We need people with all kinds of skills, and community colleges can be a great resource. We often see that students pursuing two-year degrees are even more embedded in the community—they're going to class, they're working a job, they may be living with family and caring for siblings all while trying to complete their education.
What makes the Foundation scholarship program unique from other scholarship providers?
Kesa: Because our student aid program is 100 years old, it’s very established in our community, and it also has an intergenerational pull. We answer phone calls from grandmothers who received a college scholarship and want to learn about support for their grandkids. There are generations of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who have all been Foundation scholarship recipients. And because we’re a community foundation, our donors are often local or have a past connection to Winston-Salem. They may have attended the same high schools and sat in the same seats as our students do today!
In North Carolina we’re also lucky to have so many excellent and affordable in-state colleges for students to choose from. Most of our scholarship recipients attend colleges within an hour or two of Winston-Salem, and they often return home to start their adult lives. This is very different from national scholarship programs, where students may attend college across the U.S. and are less likely to return to their home base.
Edna: I agree with Kesa—our program is unique because we are community-based, and we're focused on students in Forsyth County and the surrounding areas. And we also offer a lot of hands-on support. Students can call us, parents can call us, and we make every effort to answer their questions and help them.
Tell us about the history of the student aid program and how the program has changed alongside the higher education landscape.
Edna: Our student aid program has really evolved since it was founded in 1923. Many people don’t know that we started out as a loan program, and over time we also began to provide scholarships. In 2013, we discontinued the loan program to focus on providing scholarships to eliminate students’ burden of paying back loans after graduation.
Our technology has evolved to reflect current needs—we used to have a paper application for every fund, around 90 funds at that time! I remember one Easter when we were at the office until midnight separating applications, and the conference room tables were piled high with paper. When we developed our online one-stop scholarship application around 2008, that allowed us to serve even more students. It also made it easier for students to apply for scholarship support. We now have 150 scholarship funds, and without technology we couldn't do today what we did back then.
Kesa: The history major in me thinks about the context of when our student aid program was founded. Loans were so commonplace at that time. It was the 1920s, way before programs like Social Security existed. Loans were a way to say we're going to help you, but you’ve got to have some skin in the game. There’s that narrative of picking yourself up by your bootstraps that is so common in American culture, when at times, we all need support from our community.
Until the federal government became more involved in providing Pell Grants and student loans in the 1960s and 70s, students and families who couldn’t afford the up-front cost of college had to lean on loan programs like the Foundation’s.
And it’s important to keep in mind that college used to be exponentially less expensive. You could take out a loan to completely cover the cost of college and pay it back relatively quickly. But around 2012, costs began to skyrocket, and students were receiving loans as a part of a larger financial aid package. That loan no longer covered the full cost of attendance, it was just a small piece of the puzzle. Students had to figure out additional ways to pay for books, room and board, and other expenses.
The Foundation has a commitment to racial equity across all its work. How does this commitment show up in the scholarship program?
Kesa: I see this showing up as a priority in so many ways, from our application process, to how we communicate the program, to the conversations we have with scholarship donors, and more.
We try to prevent bias wherever we can, because we know that we all have unconscious bias. In our scholarship review process, we work with community volunteers who select scholarship recipients. And to help prevent bias in that process, we hide students’ demographic information. We remove data such as the student’s name, zip code, race, high school, and other affiliations to make it as equitable as possible.
In our communications and outreach to school counselors, we emphasize that scholarship opportunities are available for students with a wide variety of GPA’s – not just the top-ranked students.
We also find that many of our scholarship donors value equity. Getting down to the core, most are looking to help local students get to college—they understand that there are real opportunity gaps in our community that they’d like to help close.
Edna: Our commitment to equity also shows up in how we're collecting student data, and we’re able to see that our scholarship recipients come from all backgrounds. At the same time, we’re evaluating the supporting materials we request, being mindful not to ask for items that aren’t relevant, so we lessen the burden for students to apply.
Kesa: And the Foundation has always been really open about supporting students who don’t have U.S. citizenship. We have processes in place to make sure that every student in our service area who wants to go to college will be considered for support, no matter their citizenship status.
What stands out from the stories you hear from students who receive scholarships?
Edna: I can think of so many incredible students, and it’s also exciting when we’ve been able to impact entire families with our scholarships. I think about Daymond Lindell and his three kids—we gave Daymond a scholarship to get his master's degree at Wake Forest University back in 2003, and when his first son Daylond came along, we were able to award him a scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh. His second son Dylond received scholarship support to attend East Carolina University. And now his daughter Dallia is also a scholarship recipient—she’s a sophomore in the Hussman School of Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. This is just one of many stories of scholarship support across generations!
"I think that when you give someone a scholarship, you're saying, 'I believe in you, I want to see you go the distance.'”
Kesa: I've had many experiences when I’m out and about where someone tells me that back in the day, they received a scholarship from the Foundation. I’d like to give one of many examples: I was presenting to a class at the Middle College last year. It turns out that the teacher was a Dean Prim Scholarship recipient, which at the time included summer travel to China. She told me how the travel component led her to approach life from a very global perspective and that she tries to infuse that perspective in her lessons for students today.
So that story really stays with me because I think that when you give someone a scholarship, you're saying, “I believe in you, I want to see you go the distance.” And with that support, many of these students go on to do the most amazing things and they also find ways to give back to those around them.