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Washington State Opportunity Scholarship turns 10, continues to help local students

Anthony Garay

Washington State University student Anthony Garay poses in his welding gear. 

For 10 years now, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship has been giving students from under represented backgrounds the chance to chase their educational dreams, and Longview-born Anthony Garay is one of them.

Garay, 31, said he made some choices early in life that set him down a path he regrets. After being sent to prison for property crimes, he focused on education to turn himself around.

“Learning is a really exciting thing to me,” he said. “Starting from scratch and learning it and becoming a master of the craft is just something that’s really exciting.”

WSOS Executive Director Kimber Connors said she’s excited to see the scholarship program hit the 10-year mark and “overshoot the expectations of the bold visionaries who started the program.”

More than 14,000 students, most of them first-generation college students, have been helped by WSOS in the past 10 years. The program has grown from handing out stand alone scholarships to creating a scholarship package that includes mentoring and career support along with financial support.

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From LCC to WSU

For Garay, the scholarship helped launch his academics forward. He was placed on work release in March 2020. The pandemic hit and he couldn’t find a job, so he decided to go to Lower Columbia College to pursue an associate’s degree in welding. While in prison, he earned his GED (General Education Development) certificate from Walla Walla Community College. He already had a one-year welding certificate. In June, he received his associate’s degree in welding. He is finishing the last six credits he needs to get a one-year machining degree, and he started studying electrical engineering at Washington State University this fall.

After Garay completes his engineering degree, he said he could see himself one day getting a master’s degree as well. The WSOS Career and Technical Scholarship he was awarded in 2020 helped him get there.

“Learning is something I really enjoying doing. I’m passionate about it and I think part of it is when I first got out and I got the scholarship from WSOS, it really opened my eyes and made me see that WSOS believed in me and I really can accomplish things I set my mind to,” he said.

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Garay loves learning, but said “getting out of prison with nothing, during the pandemic especially, was like, ‘wow.’ I saw the change in front of me and I knew that I had to do something to help me get over the hill.”

He said he really wanted to succeed. “I knew the whole time I was in prison that was my ultimate goal just to get out and be successful.”

That is starting to pay off, he said. He said he’s starting to get back the trust of family and friends, and that his “reputation is starting to turn around from what I used to be.”

He also has been balancing a new job as a welder at a Chehalis business, doing online general education courses at half-time enrollment while he works with his college counselor on the best way forward.

“I have a troubled past, but things are turning around for me and I couldn’t be more grateful,” he said.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship

There are three WSOS pathways: One for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in an eligible STEM or health care field in the state; one for career and technical students; and one for rural scholars, which is the newest pathway.

“We take that student’s spark of curiosity and help convert that into education, training and tools for those students so they can compete for our high demand jobs in our state and keep our economy growing and thriving,” Connors said.

Scholars in the Baccalaureate Scholarship can get up to $22,500 over a maximum of five years to earn a bachelor’s degree in an eligible STEM or health care field from a Washington college or university. The Career and Technical Scholarship is up to $1,500 per quarter for the duration of the program at one of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges.

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Rural Jobs Initiative scholars get $3,500 in their first quarter, $2,500 in their second quarter and $2,000 per quarter for the remainder of their program, which can be used on anything related to the cost of attendance.

About half of WSOS scholars are women, about half identity as people of color and the majority are first-generation college students. Connors said about 5,400 students have successfully graduated and are now working in their chosen fields.

“In the beginning this program was just about scholarship funding and financial aid. Now it’s really grown and we decided support services for student are really central,” she said. “The power of mentoring from peers and industry leaders is integral to success.”

Garay said without the scholarship, “I could have ended up dropping out and not getting my welding degree and settling for a lower paying job as direct result of that.”

The next 10 years

Expanded accessibility is a large part of WSOS’s future, Connors said. Right now, the program can only serve about a third of eligible applicants.

“We want to make sure we’re building on the success of what were able to do in the first decade,” she said. “We found a model that works, which is pairing flexible financial aid with supportive mentorship. It’s our responsibility and our privilege to make sure more of those students who apply and are eligible are able to access the program each year.”

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The program started in 2011 as a private-public partnership by the Legislature, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire and industry leaders from Microsoft and Boeing in response to rising tuition and a workforce shortage in high-demand fields.

Microsoft and Boeing each contributed $25 million, and the state matched it, giving the WSOS a $100 million start. At the 10-year mark, Microsoft committed to donating another $15 million. Several years ago, Microsoft also gave an additional $10 million, so the new gift makes the company the single largest corporate partner.

Connors said the investment “really speaks to Microsoft being a hometown hero in the way they engage with the community and the way they are realizing the importance of supporting a really rich community and robust talent pipeline.”

Garay said he has been urging his classmates to look into the WSOS.

“People that are thinking they want to go back to school, I just want them to know that there’s a lot of grants and scholarships for people out there and you can always accomplish what you set your mind to,” he said. “There’s always a way to achieve your goals, no matter what.”

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