Help arrives for first-in-family college students

Published December 7, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Colombia native Vanessa Marin almost turned down her acceptance to the University of South Florida this fall because her single mother, a custodian for Hillsborough County schools, couldn't afford the expense.

But a new Florida scholarship program for first-generation college students ensured that Marin, who graduated from Jefferson High School in Tampa with a 4.9 grade point average, could afford to attend. Today Marin, an 18-year-old aspiring architect, is wrapping up her first semester at USF.

Wednesday, an Arizona foundation with plans for a Tampa office donated $10-million toward the program, ensuring that thousands more Florida students like Marin will get the financial help they need to realize their college dreams.

The Helios Education Foundation donated two $5-million endowments: one for Florida's 28 community colleges and another for the 11 state universities.

The institutions will use annual earnings from the endowments to boost the private donations they gather each year for the state's First-Generation Matching Grant program. Lawmakers established the program last year to help bright students who might not otherwise be able to afford a community college or university.

Under the program, the state matches dollar for dollar what universities and community colleges raise privately for scholarships that go to first-generation students. Lawmakers set aside $6.5-million in matching dollars for universities and $5-million for the community colleges.

USF, for example, can get up to $967,000 matched by the state.

Helios chief executive officer Vince Roig and president Paul Luna were the first in their families to attend college, and they see their donation - the first Helios has made in Florida - as a way to give others the same opportunities.

"We are hopeful that this will break down some of the barriers and challenges that we all experienced in the past and will ensure more success for these students," Luna said. "There's truly an opportunity here to fulfill dreams for those first-generation students."

The First Generation program does not specify race, but lawmakers passed it in hopes of getting more low-income minorities into Florida's higher education institutions.

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state universities, estimates the Helios endowments will provide half a million dollars a year in total to the universities and community colleges.

He said he will ask the Legislature to continue or expand the state's funding of the matching grants, so that more students can benefit from them in the years to come.

The program is helping 4,846 students in the state universities this year, including more than 100 at USF.

Marin receives Florida's Bright Futures merit scholarship program, which covers tuition. But the $800 she gets each semester from First Generation covers other school expenses.

"All my family is really proud of me, especially my mom," Marin said. "Especially because she's a single mother. She didn't know if I would ever get here."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.