Calgary

With millions of scholarship dollars available, COVID-19 doesn't have to curtail your post-secondary plans

Experts want students to know that there is a plethora of scholarships, grants, bursaries and awards available to them — and it isn't all about having perfect grades or being an athletic superstar.

Lack of jobs, job prospects have students worried about financial stresses impacting their academic futures

From left, Sydney Whiting and Leyton Vergeire have both had success finding scholarships to help fund their post-secondary education. (From left, submitted by Sydney Whiting and Leyton Vergeire)

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring uncertainty for students across the country — with many considering putting their education on hold as a lack of jobs and job prospects have made it harder for students to fund their schooling.

But, when it comes to funding their education, experts want students to know that there is a plethora of scholarships, grants, bursaries and awards available to them — and it isn't all about having perfect grades or being an athletic superstar.

Leyton Vergeire is a first year student at the University of Alberta who immigrated to Canada five years ago.

But last year, as the 18-year-old thought about his plans for after graduation in the midst of the pandemic, he wasn't sure he'd be able to afford university.

"My parents were honestly really worried about what the outcome was for me after my high school graduation due to finances," he said. 

COVID-19 disruptions raising student concerns

And he's not alone. 

A recent Statistics Canada report found that COVID-19 disruptions are raising concerns for students about financial circumstances impacting their academic futures.

A lot of that, according to the report, has to do with a lack of student-friendly jobs and job prospects being cancelled or delayed because of the pandemic.

"The COVID-19 pandemic affected these employment plans in a number of ways, with many participants losing their job or seeing their job prospects dry up.

"The participants who planned to continue working at the job they held at the beginning of March, the majority had either lost their job (21 per cent) or been laid off (34 per cent) two months later. A further 26 per cent were still working, but working fewer hours. Less than one-quarter (24 per cent) were continuing to work as planned."

But, experts say even with these disruptions to employment there are plenty of ways students can continue to fund their education.

"Before you drop out and before you get to that worst case scenario, there is so many other ways that you can be funding your education and support mechanisms that have been put in place for students," said Madison Guy, founder of GrantMe, an online service that aggregates scholarship opportunities and helps students apply for the ones best suited to them.

Millions in unclaimed scholarships annually

Guy said there is more than $10 million in scholarships and awards in Canada that goes unclaimed every year.

"There's so much money, both externally from companies and non-profits that are being given out, but also internally in institutions because institutions have so much funding available to students," she said. "But, not all of it is being given out and not all of it's being applied for."

Vergeire said without scholarships, he knew he wouldn't be able to go to school full-time, or potentially at all this year.

But using GrantMe, he learned about scholarships he never knew existed and was ultimately awarded more than two dozen of the ones he applied for, and he no longer worries or wonders how he'll pay for his degree. 

"Winning over $100,000 was really life-changing," said the honours physiology student, who hopes to one day work as a radiation therapist. 

"Having that amount of money under my belt really gave us a peace of mind, knowing that I'll be able to focus on my academics and my career and the future, instead of just splitting that responsibility between school and university and a financial responsibility with my family."

Madison Guy, founder of GrantMe, says there are millions of dollars worth of scholarships left unclaimed annually. (Submitted by Madison Guy)

Vergeire said the key is to apply for the scholarships that fit you as an individual most closely. 

"Some of the ones I won, what was specific about the criteria was how you were involved with cultural activities and multiculturalism," he said. 

Guidance available to students

Helen Nowlan-Walls is the director of donor and community engagement with EducationMatters, which supports educational enhancement programs at the Calgary Board of Education (CBE).

She said students don't have to navigate all of this alone either. 

"Most schools have a dedicated staff person that is the scholarship coordinator. They act as that conduit to try and help the students get aware of what the opportunities are and where they should go and different places they should be looking," she said. 

She said EducationMatters has more than $500,000 in awards and scholarships primarily available to CBE students, with around 20 that are also available to Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD). 

Last year 319 opportunities were awarded to the tune of a combined $520,000.

Aileen Taylor, school counselling consultant for CCSD, said even if students didn't apply for scholarships and awards during high school there are always opportunities. 

"It's really important that they still look, because often there's lots of money out there that are available for second, third and fourth year students as well that they should really look to," she said. 

She said scholarship coordinators and CCSD schools work with students to ensure they know what awards are available.

"I encourage students to always go talk to their school counselor and to just ask the questions: 'Can you help me figure out what scholarships might be available through our school district? Can you help me figure out what scholarships might be available through any partnerships that we have?'" she said.

Apply for scholarships during admissions process

University of Calgary registrar Angelique Saweczko said there are also millions of dollars in scholarships and awards available internally at the university.

"We're still in the cycle for taking in applications for a number of our award programs," she said.

"One big misconception that students have is that they have to wait until they're admitted before they can apply for scholarships and awards. We actually recommend they apply before they've been admitted, because the deadlines are very shortly after the application deadlines."

Grade 12 Lethbridge student Sydney Whiting is currently going through the scholarship application process. 

She paid the $1,000 GrantMe fee that grants her five years of access to the site's services. 

"That comes back pretty quickly with all the support you get. It can be one-on-one support if you request it, there are mentorship webinars and then the essay editing, where you get edits with a 24-hour turnaround," she said. 

And, she's already made her money back — with more than $8,000 in scholarship offers (some dependent on which school she chooses), and many more applications currently under evaluation.

Guy said on average, students in Canada graduate with about $26,000 in debt, and she hopes to bring more awareness to the opportunities students have to graduate with less debt, or debt free. 

"A lot of those students had never applied for a single scholarship or award along the way," he said.

"There's this big gap between the number of dollars that are available to students in scholarships, and then the amount of debt that the average student is graduating with. That's really something that we want to address."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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