SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In its 94th year, the Columbia High School Scholarship Fund distributed $165,000 in need-based scholarships to 115 graduating seniors and alumni during its annual awards ceremony in the CHS library on June 8.
Each student received an average of $1,500 toward the cost of any form of higher education, whether a four-year university, technical program or graduate school; all they needed to do to be awarded the money was to fill out an application and submit a tax return.
And while CHSSF Vice President Brigid Casey acknowledged that the funds disbursed will not come close to covering a full tuition, she said they can greatly help those who might not have many financial resources.
“We often have instances of students who’ve cobbled together some financial aid, a little bit of family money, and our money might just get them over the edge,” Casey told the News-Record in a June 7 phone interview. “It makes a difference. They don’t have to worry about buying books.”
The fund certainly has made a big difference in the lives of countless South Orange and Maplewood students since its establishment in 1923. In fact, Casey said it has given out more than $1 million in scholarships in the past 11 years alone. That makes the CHSSF the largest provider of need-based scholarships in the SOMA area, she said, and it continues to grow.
But as much as the fund helps CHS students, Casey said the CHSSF leaders get just as much out of giving back to their community. The vice president said it feels highly satisfying to give out monies to those in need, especially considering that many have to balance part-time jobs with their studies. She said some scholarship recipients have even been emancipated from their parents, which means they shoulder the burden of paying for college entirely on their own.
And Casey is not the only one who feels strongly about helping students. CHSSF trustee Madeline Tugentman said it is very rewarding to benefit the students of Columbia. Education is vital, Tugentman said, so it is important to ensure that young people have the means to afford it.
Tugentman said she also loves seeing where their futures take them, as the CHSSF informally keeps track of its scholarship recipients. Though the fund trustees might not regularly correspond with them, she said students should know that they have the trustees’ support.
“We’re pulling for them when they have to take that hard calculus class, we’re pulling for them when they have macroeconomics,” Tugentman told the News-Record in a June 7 phone interview. “We are like their silent cheerleaders so they know that their community is really and truly rooting for them.”
Having that support means a lot to Alexa Brice, a CHS senior who will enter the business college at St. John’s University in the fall. Coming from a single-income household with two other siblings, Brice said paying for college has not been the easiest thing to do. So she said she appreciates that there are those in the SOMA community willing to support young people’s futures. These people have jobs and children of their own, she pointed out, yet they still are willing to be generous.
That says a lot about the SOMA community as a whole, Brice said.
“It’s like one big family because everyone wants to see the next person do well, if not better than themselves,” Brice told the News-Record before the ceremony. “Just knowing that there are so many people willing to give to students is unbelievable. It’s amazing because not every school district, not every town would do this.”
Ikenna Onyekwere, a pre-med student at Cornell University, knows full well how much that generosity can help. Onyekwere told the News-Record his first CHSSF scholarship covered a large portion of his tuition at Essex County College, where he attended before transferring to Cornell. And though his new school is a lot more expensive, he said the money still makes an impact.
“Any money that you can get is helpful,” Onyekwere said in an interview prior to the ceremony, pointing out that he met plenty of “brilliant” students at ECC who could have easily done well at a four-year university, but who simply could not afford the tuition.
Sam Fagundez is also appreciative of every scholarship she has received from the fund as she prepares to enter her senior year at Rutgers University. Fagundez — an ecology, evolution and natural resources major — said her mother was unable to work due to stage IV breast cancer for two of her past three years in college. As a result, she said paying for her education was tough.
The money she received from the CHSSF made a huge difference, Fagundez said.
“It was a lifesaver,” Fagundez told the News-Record before the ceremony. “It was the difference between finishing my education and not. It was literally the cut that made it.”
Fagundez even credited the scholarships for two awards she won for her scientific research, pointing out that she might not have had the opportunity to do such work if she had to get a second job. Knowing that, she said she definitely wants to contribute to the fund sometime in the future so she can pay back SOMA for everything it has given her.
“I have gotten so much from this school, from the scholarship fund, from this community,” Fagundez said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I think it’s important to feed back and be able to come full circle.”
CHS Class of ’02 alumnus Carl Adrien did just that after receiving scholarships from the CHSSF. Adrien said the monies he received were a key reason why he was able to graduate from Bloomfield College without debt. Now employed by JP Morgan, he said he wanted to give back to the organization that helped him on his own path to success. So he established a scholarship and eventually became a trustee of the fund.
Looking back on the past several years, Adrien told the News-Record it has felt great to help students achieve their dreams. And he wants them to know that they are not alone as they embark on their futures.
“We believe in you,” Adrien said. “You have a community behind you.”
Photos by Sean Quinn