Spring and Students' Thoughts Turn to Tuition

January marks the start of the spring semester for college students. Many of those students worry about how to pay for their studies. Commentator Kristal Brent Zook says there's plenty of money available for those who know where to look.

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ED GORDON, host:

January marks the beginning of a new year, but it's also the start of a new semester for college and high school students. Now's the time many minds turn back to the books, and also to money matters about how to pay for those studies. If you're in the market for free money for college, commentator Kristal Brent Zook says there's plenty out there. You just have to know where to look.

KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK:

You may have seen the e-mail that pops up from time to time circulated by concerned citizens. It warns in urgent tones that scholarships and grants for minorities are going unnoticed, free money being ignored. In some cases, cash is even being returned to funders due to a lack of applications. Coca-Cola, Xerox and GE are giving away checks; so are Bell Labs, Bill Gates, Boeing and Burger King.

Not everyone is clueless, thank goodness. About five years ago, a high school student named Shayla Price(ph) typed in the words `minority scholarships' on a Google search. She came up with a flood of options and quietly spent the next two years filling out some 60 applications. For the Gates Millennium Scholarship, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates, she had to write over a dozen essays. It wasn't easy and competition was stiff, but by the time Shayla donned cap and gown at her high school graduation, she had secured over $100,000 in college funds from a total of 13 sources, including the Gates scholarship. For her unusual claim to fame, Shayla Price made headlines in The New Orleans Times-Picayune just before beginning her studies at Xavier University.

OK, so no one really enjoys asking for handouts, but still, I'm amazed to think that even I survived for over a decade as a freelance writer without so much as glancing at a grant application. It simply did not occur to me that I could ask for and receive a helping hand. When I finally did apply for an Alicia Patterson Fellowship last year, at the urging of financially savvy friends, I became one of seven recipients of a year-long grant designed for full-time writers to pursue independent projects of their choosing. Thanks to this especially generous helping hand, my second book was completed and will be released almost exactly 12 months to the day after receiving my first check.

We hear a lot in the mainstream media about welfare mothers, cheats and hoodlums, and yes, there are those, but they're far outnumbered by those hard-working African-Americans who somewhat blindly keep their noses to the proverbial grindstone, working fingertips to the bone year after year without asking for a dime. Most of us are the overworked laborers and the children of overworked laborers who were taught that, for us, the American Dream necessarily comes wrapped in sweat and sorrow. Most of us believe in and even cherish such romanticized hype and wouldn't have it any other way.

But is it really a good thing to be too proud to beg? Much as I hate to admit it, the neo-cons may be right on this one. Yes, there are opportunities for those who seek them out of any race and, yes, there have been some major gains for economic achievement, particularly in the way that some private industries are finally beginning to nurture diversity. Help has indeed arrived in some quarters, although not near the Lower Ninth Ward.

So why don't we seize it? On the issue of self-help, both liberals and conservatives actually speak a bit of truth. No one should argue that it's the individual citizen's job to fix a levee or protect entire communities from preventable disaster. But on the flip side, neither should we look to government to help us dream or to make those dreams a reality.

GORDON: Kristal Brent Zook is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a contributing writer at Essence magazine.

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