SANFORD - As high school graduation inched closer, Amber England knew what she wanted to do, but it seemed out of reach. During classes at Lee County High School, Amber discovered how much she loved expressing herself through art, though it didn't seem like a particularly viable career option at the time.
Then she started watching closely the video games she was playing and focused her attention on the background images that set the scene and framed the action. She kept looking and thinking until a moment of insight: There were jobs behind the video games she was playing. "I found out I can get a degree and a professional job as an illustrator or designer of some kind," she said, "then I thought my way up to concept artist for video games."
It seemed like destiny. Then, reality hit. With money so tight in her family of three children, Amber knew college might never be an option. She hoped to find enough scholarship money to enroll somewhere and make her dream come true, but it seemed more likely that she'd end up working in whatever job she could find or maybe joining her brother in the military.
That's when Amber heard about Lee County Promise, a local initiative supported through county and private funding that guarantees up to two years of free in-state college tuition to public school graduates who meet eligibility standards.
Lee County Promise gave her entire family hope. Maria England, Amber's mother, described life as a former-military family and how they managed to get one child into community college with her husband's GI Bill and another into the U.S. Air Force. How they could finance a four-year degree for their third child, that didn't seem as easy.
"We're making it," Maria said. "My husband is retired and is a truck driver. I'm working full-time. But the amount we're making is not something where we can say, 'Go to a four-year college and we can afford this, scholarship or not.'"
Amber being able to live at home and complete her first two years tuition-free has changed everything. "The whole financial burden is taken away," the mother said. "That absolutely is a relief for us."
Promise to Students
About 75 public high school graduates in Lee County qualified for Lee County Promise in its first year and most began their fall semester by attending a short information session with CCCC President Dr. T. Eston Marchant, who welcomed the first class of scholarship recipients. "We are so proud of you," he said that morning in August. "It is amazing me, as I greeted you coming in, the variety of majors and things you want to do with your lives. We're here to help you do that."
Students in front of him were all Lee County residents who graduated from a public high school, one requirement to qualify for Lee County Promise, and were guaranteed up to two years of free in-state tuition and required fees at Central Carolina Community College. Textbooks and supplemental fees are not part of the financial aid package, but are paid by the students themselves.
To qualify, students must meet a few additional criteria. They must attend CCCC as a full-time, degree-seeking curriculum student beginning the fall semester immediately following high school graduation. They also must have successfully completed at least four high school courses -- 12 credit hours to be technical -- using Career and College Promise, a popular initiative statewide that offers both high school and college credit for a portfolio of tuition-free college courses taken while in high school.
Each year, eligible students must complete the federal FAFSA forms required by most colleges and universities to qualify for financial aid and a Central Carolina Community College Foundation scholarship application. When financial aid packages are calculated, they begin with all grants, scholarships and outside funding students are eligible to receive, and then Lee County Promise pays the balance of their tuition and required fees.
Being able to complete his first two years of college and earn an associate degree without having to borrow a dime is what grabbed the attention of Joshua Harris.
The 18-year-old student-athlete enrolled in CCCC this fall to pursue an associate degree in health and fitness science, hoping to transfer to East Carolina University or the University of North Carolina Wilmington for an eventual master's degree in athletic training.
His original plan was to go directly to one of the two four-year universities, but he changed his mind and never applied. He wanted to stay closer to home for a while, Joshua explained, and he's not sure how he would have managed to pay. Would he have been able to attend college at all without Lee County Promise? "That's hard to say," he said. "I don't know if I would have even been in college or not."
Now, he's not only attending class, but enriching campus life for everyone as a member of the Cougar men's basketball team. Head coach Bradley McDougald has a lot of good things to say about Joshua's defense -- his willingness to sacrifice his body for loose balls and take a charge for the team. What impresses him most, though, is the attitude that his young student-athlete brings to campus. "He works really hard in practice everyday and I never have to ask for effort from him," McDougald said. "He's a very athletic kid, bouncy, with a lot of enthusiasm. I look forward to watching him grow as a player."
"Win-win" has become a cliche, but there's truth to the idea that some things benefit everyone involved, and Ken Hoyle, CCCC's Vice President of Student Services, believes Lee County Promise is one of those things.
"Obviously, it benefits high school students who want to continue their education at Central Carolina Community College and earn an associate degree without going into debt," Hoyle said. "But it does much more than that. It helps the college by bringing more highly motivated, outstanding students onto campus and it helps our entire community.
"This creates a better educated community and shows the world how serious we are about education, which is a key for our economic development. Really, what this does is create the promise for a better future."
Promise for the Future
As scholarship recipients talk about Lee County Promise, a lot of the discussion centers around money and financial aid, and that makes sense. The whole idea is to provide the financial aid needed for students to continue their education. But what may get lost in the discussion of dollars and cents is that finding money for college is really about seizing the future -- whether or not some talented, young students can ever pursue their hopes and dreams.
When Amber and her mother finally had a moment early in her first semester of college to discuss Lee County Promise for this story, they actually did it passing a cell phone back and forth while sitting in a parking lot at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They had just arrived to attend an afternoon tour and information session for prospective transfer students at the UNCG College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Barely months into the first year of Lee County Promise, scores of students are already moving forward in their lives because of the innovative, local scholarship program -- and beginning to show plenty of promise for the future.
Amber England is among the students participating in the Lee County Promise program. Lee County Promise is a local initiative supported through county and private funding that guarantees up to two years of free in-state college tuition to public school graduates who meet eligibility standards.