Valedictorian Zach Wolf solved a Rubik’s cube on stage Saturday at the Smith-Cotton High School Class of 2013 graduation ceremony. It was a metaphor for the complex puzzles students have to solve en route to getting that diploma.
But due to the rising costs of tuition and the dangers of racking up too much student-loan debt in a bad economy, the puzzle-solving goes beyond securing that piece of paper that won’t buy you a sandwich at Walmart. Many in the Class of 2013 went above and beyond the classroom to win scholarships that will ease the financial burden of college — the next step in the uphill quest to find a job.
“Our class is really smart, so you basically have to have all A’s all the time just to be in the top 10 percent of your class,” graduate Hannah Ott said before Saturday’s ceremony at the Mathewson Exhibition Center. “And it’s been really hard, because I’ve had to dedicate a lot of time to school and not go out with friends as much. I still have fun, but I’ve had to buckle down and do what I’m supposed to do.”
Ott, who plans to study nursing at the University of Central Missouri, won $6,000 in scholarships. Wolf was even more fortunate, as he raked in a $70,000 full-ride scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he plans to study entrepreneurship and real estate.
“Everybody’s going to have the academic requirements, so that’s not going to stand out,” Wolf said. “They’re looking for someone who can public-speak, and people who can live beyond the classroom and be well-rounded.”
Smith-Cotton senior counselor Carmen Brock said the Class of 2013’s $1.6 million worth of scholarships is on par with the average in recent years. But it’s higher than when she started in education 21 years ago.
“The majority of students have to have some kind of supplemental income, whether it be scholarships, Pell grants or student loans,” Brock said. “To be successful, now you need a college education. It used to be that a high school education got you pretty far, but not anymore.”
As such, Saturday’s graduation was not an ending. Nor was it even a beginning, since many students started seeking college scholarships a whole year before graduating from high school.
“I started applying for outside scholarships after my junior year,” said Ryan Akin, who plans to play soccer and study pre-med at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan.
Scholarship money will cover $24,500 of Akin’s $32,000 annual cost to attend Baker. Akin’s money rolled in from a whopping 11 different scholarships — four from the school itself, and seven from other sources.
“I spent countless hours writing submissions,” said Akin, who was a goalkeeper for the Tigers. “For the dean’s scholarship, I made a presentation on how art has influenced me. Then I did an essay and an interview. It took a lot, but I’m glad I did it.”
Essentially, Saturday’s high school graduates have already started the process of fighting for a job in an economy that will likely still be in rough shape in four years. Further compounding the problem, many students’ parents have struggled in the bad economy, making scholarships essential to merely attend college.
“My parents don’t make as much because of the economy, so I have to find a way to pay for college, because that will pay off in the long run,” said Jovana Cervantes, who took in about $1,500 in scholarships that she’ll put toward her studies at State Fair Community College and Southern Illinois University.
It took Wolf a little more than a minute to solve the Rubik’s cube on Saturday (his record is 44 seconds). He made it look easy, but he’s been practicing since his freshman year. Likewise, the Class of 2013 is already putting in the effort that could impress an employer someday.
If not, there’s always the option of starting one’s own business. Wolf actually already owns a local business: Buzz Pro, which sells advertising on benches.
“Right now, you see first-hand the effects of the economy,” said Wolf, a member of the Tigers basketball team. “People will say they agree with everything you’re saying, but they just can’t afford to advertise. That’s the situation we’re in with the economy.”
Still, there was no sense of doom-and-gloom from Wolf or other graduates on Saturday.
“They call our generation the ‘instant-gratification generation,’ ” Wolf said. “People look at that negatively, but I also see it as we’re go-getters. We’re entrepreneurial. If we can’t find a job, we’ll create one.”
And the Class of 2013 isn’t shy about competition. Ott, for one, works extra hard because of it.
“Our class is very intelligent, and kids are motivated to take college classes, and a lot of them want to be doctors,” she said. “You’ve gotta compete against all those kids that are geniuses in everything they do. It motivates you.”