SOURCE: Virginia529 College Savings Plan

Virginia529 College Savings Plan

November 20, 2013 04:00 ET

Virginia529 Awards Scholarships to Richmond-Area Youth

60 Receive $120,000 in Awards

RICHMOND, VA--(Marketwired - November 20, 2013) - Like many 18-year-olds, Christine Banjo said goodbye to her family and headed off to college this fall. Unlike most other freshmen, Christine's path to college included periods of homelessness in middle and high school. At times, the George Wythe High School student felt like going to college would be impossible for her. 

That changed when she met Phenie Golatt, a college access advisor with the GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program, Inc. (GRASP). GRASP works with Virginia529 College Savings Plan (Virginia529) to administer a scholarship program called SOAR Virginia®.

"My guidance counselor called me into a meeting and invited me to join this program Ms. Golatt offered at my school," Christine said by phone from her dorm at Norfolk State University. "Working with Ms. Golatt helped me understand what college was like. The program helped me understand financial responsibility."

SOAR Virginia began its pilot program in a limited number of schools in 2010 to help low- and moderate-income students prepare for and achieve higher education. Students at participating schools are eligible to join the program in the tenth grade; if they participate for three years and meet all the requirements, they can earn up to $2,000 in college scholarship funding.

To complete the program, SOAR Virginia scholars must maintain a 2.5 GPA and comply with their schools' conduct codes and attendance requirements. In addition, they complete a financial literacy course and log hours providing community service. In their senior year, the students also must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and apply to a college, university or technical school.

Christine is using her $2,000 SOAR Virginia scholarship to pursue a degree in social work, a field she chose because of her personal experience being homeless.

SOAR Virginia is funded by Virginia529. The program supports the state agency's mission to make higher education more accessible and affordable for all Virginia families.

Each year a student satisfies program requirements, $500 is placed in his or her tax-free Virginia529 account. The funds are for the benefit of that student and held until they are ready to use them for higher education. SOAR Virginia scholarships may be used at any 529-eligible educational institution, including a wide variety of four-year, two-year and trade schools, however students can earn an additional $500 by attending a school in Virginia. 

"SOAR Virginia is unique in that it combines the hands-on services of access providers with the financial incentive of a scholarship," stressed Mary Morris, Virginia529 CEO. "Together, they increase students' likelihood of success once in college, particularly for those who are the first in their families to attain higher education."

In June, the program's initial cohort of 60 tenth graders graduated high school. The program launched in Central Virginia and nearly half of the first SOAR Virginia graduates were from the City of Richmond. Other Richmond-area school systems with SOAR Virginia scholars include Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Hopewell and Prince George.

Additional schools have been added to the program each year, resulting in more than 600 students in 30 schools from Lee County to the Eastern Shore participating in SOAR Virginia last year. Eighty-five percent of all participants met the program's requirements, earning a cumulative $250,000 towards their future college expenses. In 2013-2014, Virginia529 is expanding SOAR Virginia to eleven new school districts, including Petersburg, Cumberland and several in Hampton Roads. Program leaders expect nearly 1,200 students to participate this year.

The program targets schools in districts defined as "high need" by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). In high-need districts, fewer than 75 percent of students graduate, more than 14 percent drop out and a large number receive free or reduced lunches.

Virginia529 works with college access providers across the state to implement the program in schools. The first organization to partner in SOAR Virginia was GRASP, based in Glen Allen. Virginia's Community Colleges joined in 2012, using their career coaches to increase the program's reach into areas surrounding the state's 23 community colleges. This fall, Virginia529 expanded into Hampton Roads by partnering with the ACCESS College Foundation, an organization that has provided college help to students in Hampton Roads for 25 years.

GRASP advisor Laurie Deadrick appreciates how SOAR Virginia allows her to reach students two years earlier than she normally would. Many college access providers, who help students navigate the college application process and find financial aid opportunities, work with high school seniors only.

"Joining SOAR [Virginia] means students commit to better grades and attendance records as sophomores," she explained. "They also develop a relationship with their advisor that helps them learn to talk to adults and work through things."

Deadrick coaches students in Goochland and Cumberland. Like most advisors, she takes her role in the lives of the students she helps very seriously.

"In 20 years, I don't care if they remember my name," she said. "I just want to know we made a difference." 

SOAR Virginia graduate spotlights:

Manchester High graduate Alex Orenuga moved from Ohio to Chesterfield after middle school. He credits his involvement in SOAR Virginia with helping him keep up his grades as he juggled school with working as much as 20 hours per week at a part-time job. Alex also is thankful for SOAR Virginia's financial assistance, which he is using to study biology at Malone University in Ohio.

Beaverdam native Shanice Ford is pursuing a communications degree at George Mason University. The Patrick Henry graduate says she initially didn't understand the significance of her participation in SOAR Virginia. It was only later, as she learned how the $2,000 scholarship would help her with tuition obligations, did she realize its value. Shanice, the oldest of five children, also appreciates how the program is helping her siblings (one also is a SOAR Virginia scholar) reach their goals.

Henrico's Daniel Buth is a first-generation American; his parents emigrated from Cambodia when they were in high school. The Douglas Freeman graduate is studying chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University and wants to become a pharmacist. He's already on his way, earning a pharmacy technician license and working at a pharmacy in Martin's Food Markets while in high school. In addition to the financial assistance, Daniel's participation in SOAR Virginia helped him understand what he should do to prepare for college.

Goochland High School graduate Shelby Cutright is the first in her family to attend college. She credits SOAR Virginia with giving her the courage to think college was possible and the information she needed to apply. Shelby is attending J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College for two years; then she plans to transfer to VCU. She is interested in performing arts and eventually wants to direct theater productions.

About the Virginia529 College Savings Plan:
Virginia529 is a 529 college savings plan that offers flexible, affordable, tax-advantaged savings for qualified higher education expenses through its four programs: Virginia529 prePAID (SM) (prePAID (SM)), Virginia529 inVEST (SM) (inVEST (SM)), CollegeAmerica® and CollegeWealth®. More than $45 billion in assets under management and 2.3 million accounts as of September 30, 2013 make Virginia529 the largest 529 plan available. For more information on Virginia529's college savings options, visit

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