By Ricky Rath
Right after high school graduation, Mocki Serey was excited to attend Western as a freshman. With 20 cents in his wallet, Serey was depending on financial aid to help pay for the cost of attendance and housing.
That excitement turned to stress when he received a notification from the Student Business Office on the balance left on his account. Serey was fully dependent on financial aid since his family couldn’t help him.
He was on his own.
He worked relentlessly to pay off the balance. But he ended up leaving Western during his sophomore year when he was unsure of what he wanted to do in school. The expenses outweighed the reasons to continue.
June Fraser Thistle, Western’s Residence Life office manager, noticed this concerning trend among students when she joined the Residence Life staff.
Thistle said students seemed to be leaving their residence halls in the middle of the night because of the costs of college, and she wanted to do something about it. This was the start of the Western Gap Scholarship.
In February 2017, Thistle attended the kick-off meeting for the 2017 Western Faculty and Staff Giving Campaign. She sat around a table brainstorming ideas to create a more robust culture of philanthropy on campus.
Early on in the meeting, Chairman David Hamiter, ATUS application specialist, mentioned that anyone can start a scholarship. That one phrase stuck around in Thistle’s mind for the rest of the day.
As the rest of the meeting unfolded, Thistle began to formulate a scholarship intended to retain students who are struggling financially.
Thistle worked with the Western Foundation and contacted potential donors to raise $2,000. That $2,000 started the Western Gap Scholarship to give students a second chance.
She decided on the scholarship name after realizing that some students have a gap in what they are given in financial aid and what they need to cover their cost of attendance.
According to a 2017 study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, 70 percent of colleges are unaffordable for low to mid-income students unless they use student loans.
The study also reported that low-income students on average need to finance an amount equivalent to more than 100 percent of their family’s annual income to attend a four-year college. These students often have to support themselves by working. Because of these financial hurdles, they are less likely to finish pursuing a degree than their peers, according to the report.
During her 15 years at Western, Thistle has personally helped several students during times of struggle. Thistle said she’s taken students to the food bank and helped students move between homeless shelters, but it was time to do something bigger.
“You can’t keep worrying about everyone’s financial wellness and not act on it,” Thistle said.
When she first arrived at Western 15 years ago, her job involved collecting loans from former students in the Student Business Office.
“That really gave me a good insight into student debt and the struggles that some of our students that left before they graduated faced,” Thistle said. “How are they going to pay those loans back?”
The job caused her to look at student debt creatively to find ways to help students return to school and graduate, Thistle said.
She worked with a Western grant-funded program that reinstated struggling students who only had 20-30 credits left to graduate called “Destination Graduation.” Thistle was able to help students fight through financial struggles and loans so they could return to Western.
“You kind of leave with a bad taste in your mouth from any university when you only have 20 credits left to graduate and you had to leave,” Thistle said.
Western’s tuition costs for 2017 are currently at $6,249 for Washington residents and $20,760 for non-residents. This doesn’t include costs for fees, books, transportation, housing or meals.
After working in the Student Business Office for seven years, Thistle moved to student housing in 2010. She realized students were leaving Western due to financial struggles.
During his time at Western, Serey had to pick up two part-time jobs to help cover the extra expenses and needed money to pay for whatever wasn’t covered by financial aid, especially during his first quarter.
“I was stressing out. I needed to get this money and nobody was going to support me. I had to work my ass off,” Serey said.
“We all talk about retention, but do we actually put our money where our mouths are?”
June Fraser Thistle Western Residence Life office manager
Thistle said it is common that students struggle to pay the remaining amount of balance from housing costs in their first quarter and then aren’t able to register the next quarter.
“It’s devastating to stand there and think, ‘Wow I’ve worked all summer, I worked really hard, I earned this money, I paid off my textbooks, I am ready and here I am looking at this bill and no pocket to grab it out of,’” Thistle said.
Serey grew up in Tacoma and graduated from Mount Tahoma High School. After arriving to Western, he said he learned to be independent and endured long work hours to survive on his own.
“I had to work or I had to suffer, I needed to survive. If I didn’t really sit and think about my life for a little bit, I probably would have been homeless,” Serey said. I was probably so financially unstable and trying to juggle everything at once, I almost went to living on the street at one point.”
Serey currently works full time and looks forward to returning to school once he resolves his financial situation and finds out what he wants to pursue in school.
Thistle is hoping her scholarship can help students in situations like Serey.
During the 2016-2017 academic year, Western distributed $140,517,786 to Western students through grant, scholarship, employment and loan programs, said Clara Capron, assistant vice president for enrollment and student services who oversees financial aid.
The Western Stands for Washington campaign was able to bring in more than $22 million to support scholarships, said Dina Murphy, financial aid manager at the Scholarship Center.
“The number of scholarships available to Western students are actually increasing,” Murphy said.
Thistle said after years of being on scholarship committees, she realized not enough students are applying for them.
“If only 28 students apply for a scholarship, wouldn’t you consider that underutilized considering how many students we have on campus?” Thistle said.
Thistle graduated with an associate degree in early childhood education and she said her passion in starting the scholarship was because of the potential students may have with a bachelor’s degree.
She awarded the first recipient of the Western Gap Scholarship in October 2017 and hopes to award hundreds more.
Thistle challenges faculty, alumni and staff to get involved with the scholarship.
“We all talk about retention, but do we actually put our money where our mouths are?” Thistle said. “I’m looking for everyone to reach into their pockets for five bucks a paycheck and say, ‘Yes, I can do five bucks and I can not go to Starbucks today,’ and then we would have something the nation would be talking about.”
Thistle said she wants to personally reach out to anyone who contributes to the Western Gap Scholarship and looks forward to sending out thank you cards.
“As a community I think we can all surround those who need some help and lend a hand,” Thistle said.
Those interested in donating or getting involved with the Western Gap Scholarship can call 360- 650-3027 or visit foundation.wwu.edu/WesternGapScholarship