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Scholarship fund will help UNI's Center for Urban Education reduce barriers to earning a degree
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Scholarship fund will help UNI's Center for Urban Education reduce barriers to earning a degree


WATERLOO — The University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education has long supported educational goals of people from low-income families and those who are among the first generation to attend college.

Its federally funded Trio programs provide services as early as middle school like academic advising, counseling, tutoring and supplemental instruction. As students prepare to apply for college, they can get help with completing admissions, scholarship and financial aid applications. Similar services as well as assistance dealing with defaulted student loans are available to adults hoping to return to college.

But while UNI-CUE can help students in the Educational Talent Search, Classic Upward Bound, and Educational Opportunity Center programs find scholarships, its staff can’t always guarantee that they’ll receive the money. And that can stop them from completing a degree or training program.

“I’ve known families that $300 literally kept them from going to the next semester,” said Robert Smith, UNI-CUE executive director.

Now the center, based in downtown Waterloo, will have the possibility of directly helping students facing those kinds of challenges.

It recently received a $117,000 grant from the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, which will be used to set up an endowment and award scholarships to low-income students in the programs. CUNA Mutual Group – based in Madison, Wis., with offices in Waverly – will provide the grant funds over two years.

UNI-CUE’s Academic Attainment Fund will provide “last dollar in” scholarships of $2,000 per semester, or $4,000 for an academic year, to cover tuition expenses not expected to be covered by any other aid. It will also provide mini-scholarships of up to $1,000 per academic year to assist with a variety of financial barriers that might keep students from continuing their education.

Cedar Falls Historical Society Collection Manager Julie Huffman-Klinkowitz tells the stories behind some of the quilts on display in the “Art & Heirloom" exhibit.

“This is huge,” said Smith, noting he didn’t realize how much his agency could receive when it submitted the grant request in the fall. “I’ve been here over 30 years and this is one of the most exciting things that has happened.”

Smith’s team of administrators began discussing a grant application after being encouraged to submit one by Sharina Sallis, a community relations manager with CUNA Mutual Group. She said UNI-CUE’s proposal fit well within the foundation’s three areas of investment – education, economic stability and emergency relief.

“We know that education is one of the first steps to building wealth,” said Sallis.

“I want our center to be the light to let (students) know that you can attain that degree,” said Yolanda Williams, director of Classic Upward Bound, who took the lead in writing the grant. “The endgame is to create an endowment so it’s here for years to come.”

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This will be the “first fund for UNI-CUE to be in the decision-making process,” added Smith. He hopes to substantially grow the total amount of money over the next three to five years. “I’d like to go out and raise about $1 million for this fund.”

Plans are in place to make fall 2021 scholarship awards to Trio participants who apply, show need through the federal student aid process and maintain at least a 2.5 cumulative grade point average.

Three of the “last dollar in” scholarships will be awarded in the initial round. “Each program will be able to select an individual,” said Smith. Students can renew the scholarship for two to four years. Another student from each program will also be awarded a scholarship for the fall of 2022.

Williams said when an award is made, they “just want to make sure it’s enough to cover that need. I think that’s just such a boost for those that are struggling.”

Mini-scholarships will be awarded throughout the year for documented needs such as living expenses like housing or utilities, child care, books or supplies, transportation, and access to the internet. Individuals can qualify for one award per academic year.

However, Williams said, there will be much more opportunity to receive the mini-scholarships – 100 to 200 annually, depending “on what the need looks like.”

About 1,300 Waterloo Community Schools’ secondary students are served by Educational Talent Search and Classic Upward Bound serves 95 Waterloo high school students. The Educational Opportunity Center serves 1,900 adult students in Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw and Tama counties.

On average, 150 students in the programs are admitted to UNI annually while 200-250 are admitted to Hawkeye Community College. There are no restrictions on where students enroll for post-secondary education or training if they receive a scholarship through the new initiative.

Smith is already thinking beyond the Cedar Valley with the hoped-for success of the new effort.

“I want this to be a model, not just here, but for Trio programs all over the country,” he said.

Collection of Black Hawks photos from 3-14-21


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Education Reporter

I cover local schools and higher education for The Courier, where I’ve been a reporter for the past two decades. I’m a Minnesota native and have previously worked for newspapers there and in Illinois.

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