By Helen McClintock
Angelica Coffey is the only child of a single mother who could not afford to send her daughter to college. So at 18, Angel (as she’s usually called) decided on a career in the army in hopes of adventure and an education. It was not to be.
“I liked the recruiter so much, I decided to marry him instead of enlist,” said Angel.
When she married, Angel became stepmother to a 12-year-old boy and, in time, had four more children who now range in age from 22 to 10. Soon after the wedding, Angel’s husband became partially disabled and, a few years later, 100% disabled. Angel became her husband’s caretaker and medical advocate until he died less than two years ago. Now a widow aged 42 (she looks younger despite the white streaks in her hair), Angel decided she must have a college education so she can earn a decent living and make sure all her children go to college.
“I knew getting an education would involve sacrifi ces, not just for me but for my children. They would have to do without a lot. No TV, no eating out, no designer clothes. I also knew I’d need financial help, so I applied for scholarships.”
One scholarship she received was from the GEM Fund, which is the philanthropic arm of the Asheville branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization dedicated to breaking down educational, economic, and legal barriers for women and girls. The GEM Fund was founded in 2002 to raise money for undergraduate scholarships to local colleges for women who either did not go to college immediately after high school or dropped out for some reason. GEM, which stands for gaining educational momentum, awarded its first scholarship 10 years ago. The amount was $500.
“In 2012 GEM awarded ten $1,000 scholarships to A-B Tech and two $1,500 scholarships to UNC-A,” said GEM President Alice Doner. “The scholarships have grown both in number and size, thanks to the generosity of our members and friends. We increase the number of scholarships more than the amount of each scholarship because our partners at A-B Tech tell us that’s what they prefer. That way the scholarships touch more lives.”
Angel agrees that getting the scholarship means more than extra cash.
“The money made a real difference,” she said. “For me to go to school full time, my family has to cut back on everything that’s not absolutely necessary. But,” she continued. “The greatest effect of the scholarship was the boost to my confidence. It felt so good that strangers thought enough of me to give me money. It’s only now, at age 42, that I’m beginning to stand on my own feet. Until my husband died, he was in charge. Now, I’m in charge. It’s both scary and exciting. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I’m slowly beginning to believe I can. Getting this scholarship reinforced that belief.”
Angel is dual-enrolled at A-B Tech and Western Carolina University. She takes classes in person at AB Tech and one online class per semester from WCU. In 2016, she graduates with a nursing degree.
“Actually,” Angel continued, “When I graduate what I really want to be is a patient advocate and medical care coordinator. Through caring for my husband, I learned that patients often see different doctors for different problems, and each doctor doesn’t always know what other treatments their patients are getting. I want to track all that for patients, so nothing about their treatment gets messed up.”
Like Angel, many recipients are single mothers, struggling to get an education so they can provide a better life for themselves and their children. Others have already raised a family and are hoping for a new career.
Rachel Pagán is one such scholarship recipient and, at 55, is this year’s eldest. Rachel served time in the Navy and later had a 27-year career as an RN. She is divorced for many years and has three children, the youngest still in college.
“I got tired of nursing and wanted to expand my horizons and knowledge,” Rachel said. So I quit my job, moved to Asheville, and applied for college.”
The scholarship was also a boost to Rachel’s self-confidence.
“I got a GEM scholarship two years in a row,” she said. “You can’t imagine what that did for me. It felt so good.”
Rachel is in her last year at UNC-A and will major in religious studies.
“Not because I’m particularly religious,” she said. “But because I’m fascinated by the variety and number of religions in the world. At first, I wanted to focus on Native American and African religions, but my studies eventually spanned all religions.”
While she was thinking how to focus her final research paper, Rachel read about the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan.
“I was intrigued that 15,000 people—mostly slaves but some free blacks—were buried there more than 300 years ago and then forgotten. The city grew around them and eventually covered them over. The cemetery was discovered about 20 years ago when excavations began for a new building. I decided to look into the lives of the people buried there, to learn whether they converted to Christianity or kept their African religions.”
Rachel’s paper was one of those chosen to present last November at the conference of the North Carolina Religious Studies Association in Wilmington.
“It was such an honor,” Rachel said. “One I never expected.”
Like Angel, Rachel has a small income and lives simply so she can pursue her studies. Besides the AAUW scholarship, she received a Pell Grant and has student loans, which one day she’ll have to repay.
“The AAUW scholarships were a blessing,” said Rachel. “It freed up some money I’d budgeted for school and allowed me to give it to my youngest daughter who’s attending George Mason University. The scholarships not only helped me, they also helped my daughter.”
Tiara Edwards is this year’s youngest recipient. She’s 23 and, despite her youth, she knows the value of an education. She is just as enthusiastic about college as Angel or Rachel. She tells a story about when her mother was pregnant with her.
“My mother already had six children and was scared about how she’d take care of yet another. But then she had a dream that she’d have a daughter, and the daughter would become something great.”
Tiara smiles. She’s loves this story.
“So right now,” Tiara continued. “My main goal in life is to make my mother proud. I want to be a civil rights lawyer and defend people who have a hard time defending themselves, especially women.”
Tiara’s mother must be proud of her daughter already. In her short life, she has already accomplished much despite difficulties that might deter a less determined woman. When Tiara was still in high school, her family moved from New York to Asheville. Tiara stayed behind, moved in with her fi ancé’s family, was treated badly, and forced to drop out of school to care for her fiancé’s invalid mother.
“It was a foolish decision to stay in New York and drop out of school,” Tiara said. “Especially foolish because I was doing well in school. For example, during 8th grade I represented the school in moot court before the New York Bar Association. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I was good at sports too. I was the only girl on the basketball team at the Carmine Recreation Center for four years. Those boys toughened me for life, and I’m still friends with the coach.”
Eventually, Tiara realized her mistake. She left New York, moved to Asheville, and enrolled in A-B Tech where her grades are so good that she receives scholarships. She’ll graduate with an AA in May and transfer to UNC-A in the fall to get her four-year degree in political science. When I ask where she wants to go to law school, she smiles, almost in disbelief at her own audacity.
“Duke,” she says. “I want to go to Duke.”
And, you know, she probably will go to Duke. Tiara has energy to spare and a determination to succeed. In the meantime, she works part-time at Jo Ann’s fabric shop on Tunnel Road. If you go to that store, be sure to say “hello” and congratulate her on her successes so far.
Most of the money for the GEM scholarships is contributed by AAUW members, their families, and friends.
“Although we raise most of our funds from members, we’d love to attract partners, private and corporate, from outside AAUW,” said Alice Doner. “One of our goals this year is to do more public outreach and expand our donor base. To all our contributors, we say thank you, thank you. And, of course, all donations are tax deductible.”
GEM accepts contributions at any time, including gifts made to honor someone—for example, on a birthday—or in remembrance of a loved one. In addition, every spring GEM begins a fundraiser season, which kicks off this year with an event called “Bling, Bling, Bash” to be held Saturday, April 6, from 10 to 2, at the Beaver Dam Fire Station. It’s a sale of fabulous “gently used” accessories such as costume jewelry, handbags, and scarves. The public is invited to contribute or to purchase items, and all proceeds go to the GEM Fund.
The culminating event of the fundraising season is the annual fundraiser party, held every year in the afternoon of the first Sunday in June. The public is welcome to attend.
“For the last two years, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the event at the historic Fernihurst mansion on the A-B Tech campus,” said Alice Doner. “And it’ll be held there again this year on June 2 from 4 to 6 pm.”
Fernihurst is a beautifully restored mansion built on a hilltop around 1875. When George W. Vanderbilt saw it, he tried to buy it. But the owners would not sell, so Mr. Vanderbilt bought much of the rest of the land around Asheville and built Biltmore instead. Some argue that the view from Fernihurst is better than from Biltmore.
“It’s a lovely venue for a party,” said Alice Doner. “One that isn’t usually open to the public, so coming to GEM’s fundraiser gives people a chance to see it all dressed up, full of flowers. We’re honored A-B Tech allows us to use this beautiful house. Tickets are $40, which includes wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Not only are all funds donated to GEM fully tax-deductible, they are all used entirely for scholarships. GEM has no paid staff—volunteers run the program. Which means that all contributions go directly for scholarships for women in the greater Asheville area. More information about GEM and the fundraiser events is available on the AAUW website. The website also has information for people who want to join AAUW-Asheville.
“AAUW-Asheville is lively and growing,” said Molly Keeney, President. “Lots of newcomers to Asheville join because it’s a great way to meet people and make new friends. We do more than provide scholarships, although that’s our main philanthropic activity. However, we also have lots of social activities such as film groups, book groups, a world affairs study group, lunch groups, international dining. And, in all modesty, we’re a great group of women. We’re fun, we’re smart, and we’re friendly. We do accept men as members, but so far, none have taken us up on it. We’re waiting for the first courageous man to fill out an application.”
AAUW is a national organization with a mission to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research.
“The Asheville branch has about 150 members, so we can’t cover all those areas,” said Molly Keeney. “We focus on education. That’s why we set up the GEM program. Our motto is Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend. An education is.”
2012 GEM Fund Scholarship Recipients
Dual-enrolled at A-B Tech and Western Carolina
A-B Tech Community College
Like the students described in this article, Helen McClintock began her college education later than usual, at age 38. She is now a medical editor, fairly new to Asheville, and a member of AAUW.