My faith in Generation Z was buoyed this week by an opportunity to help judge two South Sound college scholarship contests, one sponsored by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation and the other by Coldwell Banker Evergreen Olympic Realty.
Through essays, detailed scholarship applications and interviews, I caught a glimpse of hard times and high hopes, adversity and achievement, dreams and drama playing out for a generation born from 1995 to 2012. They are 23 million strong and coming of age in a world of deadly school gun violence, disruptive climate change, soaring costs of higher education, nuclear proliferation and so much more.
Granted my sample size was just a few more than 100. But I came away convinced that, despite the challenges they face, they are ready to step boldly into adulthood. I met a wannabe astronaut, several aspiring bioengineers, future social workers and architects and design engineers. I hope some reform-minded politicians surface, too.
On Wednesday, I spent all day with nine other members of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation scholarship committee, interviewing 17 finalists for scholarships ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 and totaling $140,000. These are heavyweight scholarships that can help kick start a college education for high-achieving students who face daunting financial needs.
The Olympia Tumwater Foundation was founded in 1950 by Peter Schmidt Sr., the oldest son of Olympia brewery founder Leopold Schmidt. Since 1967, the non-profit group has awarded more than $1.8 million in scholarships and grants to more than 700 students from Thurston County to attend colleges in Washington state. It’s the most significant college scholarship program in the county.
Some of the recipients come from stable, two-parent homes. Some have been living in foster care or friends’ homes or their own apartment, holding down 20-hour-a-week jobs while taking honors classes. One young man we interviewed Wednesday migrated to South Sound from Guatemala alone at age 15. He hadn’t been in school since age seven- too busy working – and didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived. He wants to work in the field of cybersecurity.
Four of the finalists for foundation scholarships are on schedule to complete their two-year associate degress at South Puget Sound Community College or Centralia College. More than half are students of color. Some of the students or their parents are recent immigrants to the United States.
“Some of these kids have overcome exceedingly long odds,” said scholarship committee member and former SPSCC President Gerald Pumphrey. “It’s a reminder of the tremendous talent and potential of people that weren’t born here.”
This was my inaugural year on the scholarship committee. It was hard knowing that not everyone would receive a scholarship. It was satisfying to get to know some of the best and the brightest from the Class of 2018. I look forward to meeting the Class of 2019.
The Coldwell Banker Evergreen Olympia Realty scholarship contest is in its eighth year. It’s an essay contest – 500 words or less – in which students answer the question: What makes a house a home? The contest is open to Thurston County high school students from any class, not just seniors. There are three scholarships funded at $1,000, $750 and $500, plus the first-place winner gets to nominate their most influential teacher or coach or counselor, who receives a $500 grant to help pay for school supplies and other educational materials that are not part of the school budget.
The year, my fourth as a judge, we had 88 essays submitted, a record number. We winnowed it down to three deserving winners Thursday, knowing full well many of the runners up were just as deserving.
Again, the diversity of home lives the participants have experienced runs the gamut. Rare is the student who has lived in the same house since birth. Divorced families are so commonplace and I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of essay writers who are homeless. There seems to be a growing number of stories about hardship and displacement. The essays aren’t all about the smell of fresh-baked cookies and unconditional familial love.
If you find it odd that a real estate company would give scholarships to homeless kids, then you don’t know president/managing broker Ken Anderson and his wife, Nancy. Sure, they are in the business of selling homes. But there is a philanthropic streak that runs deep and true at Coldwell Banker Evergreen Olympic Realty.
My children are grown adults with careers and rents and mortgages to pay and busy social lives of their own. I miss having young people hanging out at Horsefeathers Farm. These two scholarship contests have helped me stay in touch with Generation Z in a meaningful way.
John Dodge is a retired Olympian columnist, author and occasional blogger. His book on the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, “A Deadly Wind,” is scheduled for release this fall.