More doors open to college opportunity as CCA foundation extends scholarships to Aurora Central students

"I was already looking for a job because I have to pay for school,” said Jesús Calderón, one of the scholarship recipients. “This takes a lot of pressure off of our backs when it comes to paying for our education.”

AURORA |A sea of damp, proud eyes was fixated on a row of beaming faces at Aurora Central High School on Friday morning, following an announcement that marked a momentous first for several Aurora families.

Six Aurora Central seniors were named the first-ever Aurora Gives Scholars at a ceremony in the high school’s Media Center, an honor that earns them two debt-free years of education at the Community College of Aurora. All of the scholarship recipients would be the first in their families to bring home a college degree.

“I was already looking for a job because I have to pay for school,” said Jesús Calderón, one of the scholarship recipients. “This takes a lot of pressure off of our backs when it comes to paying for our education.”

AS CCA Scholarship_0002

Dr. Mark Roberts, principal of Aurora Central High School provides remarks honoring Aurora Gives scholarship winners, May 15, 2015, Aurora, CO. (Photo by Trevor L. Davis)

AS CCA Scholarship 0075

Ariana Fernandez shocked she'll get a free college education holds her little sister, Denise, May 15, 2015, Aurora, CO. (Photo by Trevor L. Davis)

AS CCA Scholarship_0099

Luis Rodriguez looks at his certificate for a full ride scholarship to the Community College of Aurora, May 15, 2015, Aurora, CO. (Photo by Trevor L. Davis)

AS CCA Scholarship_0053

Stephanie Limones-Hernandez, Jesus Vargas, Alayzia Jackson, Luis Rodriguez, Jesus Calderon and Ariana Fernandez react to hearing they will all be provided full scholarships from the Community College of Aurora Foundation, May 15, 2015, Aurora, CO. (Photo by Trevor L. Davis)

The first-of-its-kind scholarship is a partnership between the Community College of Aurora Foundation and Aurora Public Schools specifically meant to address the problem of students eager to attend college without the means to get there financially. Scholarships like these help students who have to borrow to get a diploma, offsetting some of the debt incurred to getting a degree.

The country’s ballooning student loan debt currently tops $1.2 trillion, and states such as Colorado realize the problem but have offered few substantial solutions. Each of the six recipients Friday signed a contract stating that they will not take out any loans while pursuing their two-year, associate degrees, though they are allowed to apply for federal Pell grants and College Opportunity Fund stipends.

The good news originally was due for only two of the six Aurora Central finalists, but Foundation officials gave the four alternatives a surprise in announcing they had found the resources to award scholarships to all of them.

“These guys are committed,” said Gene Sobczak, executive director of the CCA Foundation. He said that next year, the organization hopes to raise $500,000 and name 100 additional Aurora Gives Scholars.

Laura Bond, a spokeswoman for the Aurora Gives Scholars program, said the plan for next year’s scholarships is to include students from other APS schools in addition to Central. Bond said the plan is to expand the program beyond APS graduates to other CCA students.

The scholarships are the brain child of Sobczak, who along with Mary Wright, coordinator of Aurora LIGHTS at Aurora Central — an advanced, healthcare-specific program of which all of the scholarship recipients are participants, worked to realize a program that was practical and accessible. The pair wanted to provide a way for Aurora LIGHTS students to attend college even if they don’t qualify for the state’s prestigious ASCENT program, which grants one free year of community college.

“I could see that I had students who were going to be going to college, paying a lot of money, and they were good kids and good students,” she said. “I thought if we teamed up with CCA, it would be a win-win situation.”

Alayzia Jackson was one of the scholarship participants who was excruciatingly close to earning one of the coveted ASCENT nominations. She found out that she was one credit shy of qualifying for that scholarship two weeks ago, something she said was, at that time, a devastating blow to her college plans.

“I found out about it a couple of weeks ago…and that was a real killer,” she said. “It takes a lot of the stress off of our minds, and I feel like it will help us be more dedicated to our schooling because we don’t have that overbearing kind of debt hanging over our heads.”

She added that the Aurora Gives scholarship  now gives her the freedom to pursue her goal of becoming a neurosurgeon at CU Anschutz.

“I think being paired with Aurora LIGHTS, we’re very close with the hospital and everybody over there, so it kind of makes me want to go  to Anschutz to do everything, because I do want to give back to the people that gave so much to me,” she said.

Sentinel reporter Brandon Johansson contributed to this report.