Kossiwa Afoudji was working two jobs while studying nursing at Hillsborough Community College. But she cut back to one, a work-study position at the school. • "I felt tired. I couldn't study hard," said Afoudji. • Now, a grant from the Athena Society will help relieve some of the financial pressure. • Afoudji, 46, and four other Tampa Bay area women each received a $1,700 Phyllis Marshall Career Assistance Grant from the Athena Society, a group of local professionals that works to provide women with more educational and career opportunities.
The grant recipients were honored at a luncheon at the Centre Club in Tampa on Thursday. The other winners were Sycoya Swauger and Tiffaney White of Tampa, Lisa Shulz of Dunedin and Hilta Tanis of Wesley Chapel.
Afoudji moved to Tampa in 2008 from Togo, in West Africa. She has a degree from a technical school in Togo, and speaks four languages besides English. But political unrest and scarce job opportunities brought Afoudji and her family to the United States.
Her 21-year-old son is a premed student at HCC, and her 17-year-old son is a senior at King High School. Her husband is disabled, and cannot work.
"I am very happy to be a recipient for this society, where everyone has a good heart and open hands to help people," Afoudji said.
The grants are awarded to women enrolled in a college or technical school program and who show financial need. The grants help offset education costs like tuition, textbooks or lab fees. But they also give the women a psychological boost, said JoAnn Urofsky, general manager at WUSF and chair of the community foundation committee that picks the recipients.
"It encourages them, knowing what they're doing to improve themselves is respected by other women," she said.
Swauger, 22, was pregnant and homeless with two young children last year when she moved into the Alpha House for homeless mothers in Tampa.
She started studying business administration at HCC in January. She's interested in hospital administration, and is determined to set a good example for her children, now ages 6, 5 and 1.
"It's the first time I've actually been able to be dedicated to school," she said.
White, 30, has a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Maryland. She taught science in Washington, D.C., but lost her passion for teaching because of turbulence in the field and discord over the federal "No Child Left Behind" law, she said.
She moved back to her hometown of Tampa to live with family so she could afford to go back to school.
Now she's studying nursing at HCC, and wants to be a clinical nurse educator. The grant helps immensely, she said. "Once you have a B.A., there's no assistance when going for another career."
Shulz, 48, of Dunedin, has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida, and is now pursuing certification as a surgical technician from Erwin Technical Center.
Tanis, 23, of Wesley Chapel, has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Florida. An honor roll student at HCC, she is studying to be a pharmacist while working as a pharmacy technician and substitute teacher.
The number of grant applicants who already had college degrees surprised Urofsky.
"It seemed to me that despite having jobs and despite having very successful careers going on, their work lives weren't satisfied," she said. And already having a degree made many of them ineligible for financial aid.
The committee looks to award the grants to women in the community who could use the help to improve their lives, Urofsky said. And it was coincidence this year that all the recipients are pursuing careers in health fields.
"I can make a change," Afoudji said. "I can make a difference in somebody's life."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@ tampabay.com or (813) 226-3321.