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Teamwork Helps Make College More Accessible for Local Students

Before school even starts, costs add up. And this can be a big hurdle — especially for students who struggle to afford college in the first place. That’s where the Athens StepUp Scholarship Program comes in.


Teamwork helps make college more accessible for local students

College can get a little pricey these days. And we’re not just talking about tuition.

Before school even starts, costs add up. And this can be a big hurdle — especially for students who struggle to afford college in the first place.

That’s where the Athens StepUp Scholarship Program comes in.

“So many scholarships kick in when a kid steps in the door [at college],” said Jane Nute, who joined the Athens StepUp board three years ago. “But there are so many other needs, too. It can be mind-boggling. There are fees for your application to college, dorm fees, orientation fees. Or even getting a hotel to go to orientation. There are so many before-you-step-in-the-door needs.”

Athens StepUp’s goal is to help local students tackle some of these needs.

“We give $500 scholarships directly to the students so they get help with things they need — things their family cannot afford to give them — whether it’s gas, registration or whatever they need to help them get to college,” said Hattie Thomas, founder and executive director of Athens StepUp.

Initially launched as a family scholarship fund named in honor of Hattie’s mother Laura Maude Thomas Day, Athens StepUp has grown over the years. Its aim? To support graduating high school seniors who have overcome significant obstacles and have been accepted to a technical school or college.

To date, Athens StepUp has gifted nearly 70 scholarships to students in need since its inception a decade ago. Goals for 2021 include giving at least 15 scholarships to Athens-Clarke County seniors. They’re hoping to eventually offer continuing scholarships to recipients, too.

One of their partners in this effort? The Athens Area Community Foundation.

As the scholarship fund grew, Hattie realized they needed more help. So she decided to move the fund to AACF.

“I knew AACF was an established and respected institution in our city and would help us succeed even more. They helped us orchestrate it all, to grow and be where we are today,” said Hattie. “Any needs that we have, if I reach out to them for support, they are there. Whatever questions we have, they are there.”

Big needs or small, the community foundation was ready to help make a difference.

“What I am so impressed with is that we were not too small for them to embrace,” added Hattie. “We didn’t have to be this big organization. In my opinion, they did just as much for us as they would for some bigger organization.”

Jane echoed those thoughts, adding that she appreciated AACF President and CEO Sarah McKinney.

“Hattie saw the need,” she said. “And Sarah did the facilitating. I think it’s wonderful.”

This isn’t the only time Jane has worked with Sarah.

Jane and her husband Donald worked with AACF to develop their own scholarship fund — The Nute Family Scholarship Fund — mentoring high school students as they prepare for college and then supporting them with a 4-year college scholarship.

“My husband and I are both educators — he at the university level and me at the middle school level,” she explained. “We just feel so strongly about education and making it possible for someone who wouldn’t have had that possibility.”

Whether it’s Athens StepUp or family scholarship funds like Jane’s, the guidance Sarah McKinney and the AACF team provides to organizations, families and individuals is invaluable.

“I think the world of Sarah. She’s doesn’t just see a problem. She’s an action person. A lot of people see it, but they’ll wait for other people to come up with ideas. That’s not Sarah,” added Jane. “She sees a need and jumps in. She really epitomizes what community means.”

Having partners like that can be a game-changer.

“I think those partnerships [like ours with AACF] are so important,” said Hattie. “You don’t have to do everything by yourself if you have partners.”

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