Phul Biswa simply could not contain the smile that spread across her face as she watched her son receive a $50,000 KC Scholars award Tuesday at Wyandotte High School, in Kansas City, Kan.
"I am very, very proud of him, because he worked so very hard," Biswa said, speaking Nepali translated by her daughter.
Her son, 16-year-old Aadesh Biswa, a junior at Wyandotte, was one of 919 teens and adults across the Kansas City metro area to be surprised with financial help for college as part of the two-year-old scholarship program.
KC Scholars is a three-tiered scholarship and college-savings program designed to carry forward a mission to help students from low- and modest-income families attain higher education degrees. The program, while funded and operated by Kansas City residents from all walks of life, got its start with a $79 million investment from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
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On Tuesday, representatives from the scholars program visited seven schools in Kansas and Missouri to surprise about 30 of the scholarship winners with announcement celebrations attended by their teachers, friends and family members.
The auditorium at Wyandotte High erupted in applause for each of the five, including two other 11th-grade students, a ninth-grade student and an adult learner — who all received some form of scholarship.
Scholarship winners were selected from among thousands of applicants living in the six counties the program serves: Jackson, Cass, Clay and Platte in Missouri, and Wyandotte and Johnson in Kansas.
KC Scholars handed out $21 million in scholarship awards Tuesday, up from the $16.7 million they were able to give last year.
Among those getting scholarships this year, 344 went to 11th-grade students who are getting up to $10,000 a year, paid directly to the college and renewable up to five years.
An additional 137 are adult learners — 24 and older — who already have at least 12 college credits but no degree. They will get up to $5,000 a year for up to five years.
Seventy ninth-grade students were give college savings match incentive scholarships, which establishes a college savings account seeded with $50 for each of them. For every dollar those students save, the scholars program will match with $4, up to $7,000.
In addition, 368 award winners will get a college savings account started for them with a $50 one-time deposit.
KC Scholars has grown tremendously over last year when 635 students got scholarships. It's up 44 percent this year, program leaders said.
"The program is changing the culture around who can go to college while creating a transformational impact on our regional workforce pipeline, economy and post secondary attainment level," said Michelle Kay vice president and general manager of Enterprise Holdings and a member of the KC Scholars board of directors.
One of the hopes is that the students who receive the scholarships will seek careers in the Kansas City area once their college education is completed.
For most of the recipients, getting a KC Scholars award is essential to them being able to afford college at all; for others it will help them avoid leaving college with a crippling amount of debt.
Tuesday's scholarship award will likely be life changing for Aadesh who came to Kansas City four years ago with his parents and three sisters from the Himalayan mountain region in South Asia.
Aadesh grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal, and it was there he first felt the desire to one day go to college and study medicine, not just to improve his life, but also the lives of others.
"In the refugee camp people were constantly getting sick," Aadesh said. "The only hospital for us was one with unqualified doctors."
He recalls having to go to the hospital after falling from a tree and breaking his hand. "They just patched me up and sent me back. I don't have full function of my hand, even now."
Aadesh plans to apply to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Kansas.
"Without the scholarship," Aadesh said his college plans would have to change. "This scholarship is a big encouragement for me, to know there are people out there who are rooting for me to succeed and supporting me."