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Dollars for Scholars

Anna Landre, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Scholarships help lessen the financial load of higher education. Here’s how students with neuromuscular disease find and win them.

The cost of higher education has soared over the past two decades. According to U.S. News & World Report, in-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased 243 percent, while they have jumped 168 percent at private institutions. 

For many prospective college students, winning scholarships is key to making education more affordable. The trick is thorough research. There are lots of scholarships out there, many of which are earmarked for individuals with particular backgrounds, students applying to particular schools, students pursuing particular fields of study and myriad other considerations. The best advice for students seeking financial assistance? Think broadly about how your situation applies to scholarships’ requirements and, above all, don’t be afraid to apply.    

Be Curious

Cody Schoppe of Cameron, Texas, found a perfect fit in an unexpected place. Sarepta Therapeutics, a medical research and drug development company that focuses on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), established the Route 79 Duchenne Scholarships program earlier this year, and Schoppe is one of the first recipients. 

Cody Schoppe, a student at Temple College in Texas

Francesca Nolan, director of investor relations and corporate communications for Sarepta, says the scholarship applicants who stood out were authentically themselves and vastly curious, and they sought to both inspire others and be inspired by the world around them.

In his application, Schoppe, a 21-year-old who lives with DMD, wrote about Project Maynardstang, an effort he started in 2011 to balance his love of the Ford Mustang and his dedication to raising awareness of neuromuscular disease. (“Maynard” is Schoppe’s nickname.)

His family’s 1993 Mustang, Ugly Betty, “is loud, and it’s mainly to cruise around and show off in,” Schoppe says. The car is painted black on top and red below, bisected by a bright blue line to represent muscular dystrophy awareness. Schoppe and his father take Ugly Betty to cruise-ins and car shows, where he sells Project Maynardstang merchandise and takes donations, giving all proceeds to MDA.

The Route 79 Scholarship is helping to support Schoppe as he studies website design at Temple College in Texas. He hopes to make Project Maynardstang a full-time job in the future.

Be Real

Nikaela Losievski, 22, of Granger, Ind., will graduate from Michigan State University in December with a bachelor’s degree in science with a concentration on neuroscience, and she is applying for doctorate programs in cell biology and neuroscience. She plans to teach and do research on spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which she was diagnosed with at 16.

Nikaela Losievski, a student at Michigan State University

Losievski won several academic and other scholarships, including one from her elementary school and one for students from St. Joseph County, Ind., and she feels that writing candid essays was key. 

“I encourage people to take every opportunity to get involved in everything,” she says, noting that participating in extra-curriculars in high school gave her experiences to write about. She also advises not shying away from the realities of life with a neuromuscular disease, even if it means writing about missing tests because of doctor appointments or how pain makes it hard to study. 

“Show how having a disability is a disadvantage,” she says. “With muscular dystrophy, a lot of it is about energy — we don’t have the capacity, so it’s easy to tire out.”

While your essay should reflect you, looking to others for help can give you an edge. “Don’t just do an essay and submit it; I had multiple people edit my stuff,” she says. That extra feedback helped her strengthen her scholarship applications. 

Think Outside the Box

Look for scholarships that focus on diversity, says Anna Landre, 19, a sophomore at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service majoring in regional and comparative studies. 

Landre, who lives with SMA, was valedictorian of her high school. But because Georgetown doesn’t award academic scholarships, Landre searched online for scholarships and won several, including one from her high school, one from the Lep Foundation and one from her local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Ocean County, N.J. 

Landre is thinking about working with the United States Foreign Service after graduation. She recommends taking a broad approach when considering scholarship applications.

“If a scholarship is looking for diversity, disability is diversity — it’s not just race or religion,” she says. “People shouldn’t be afraid to use their experience as a person with a disability to empower them to get their education. Talk about the ways that your life has been challenging, but always end in the ways that you have grown and been able to accomplish things.”

Top Tips for Applicants

Scott Hatley, 39, is executive director of Incight, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps people overcome barriers to education, employment and independence. Living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), Hatley won scholarships for college, and today he helps decide which candidates receive Incight scholarships, which range from $500 to $2,500. 

Hatley has some advice for scholarship applicants:

  • Start early. “Some applications take a lot of effort.”
  • Broaden your search. “People don’t realize how many scholarships are out there, such as from the local Kiwanis, Rotary Club, your own high school, community foundations and so on.”
  • Be focused. “It helps to have a core focus or goal for what you want to pursue, so you can find the right scholarships for the path you are taking.”

Education Resources

Visit MDA’s Education Resources page to help you choose, prepare for and pay for higher education.

Cheryl Alkon is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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