Plant City High senior Jacob Goad sat among other winners of the Bank of America Student Leadership Award at a recent luncheon and explained how he learned about the program and a number of other scholarships.
He shared that the college and career counselor at his school, Sherrie Mueller, posted scholarship possibilities on a bulletin board, categorizing each under the month the application was due and detailing the requirements. Underneath the bulletin sit multicolored folders that contain the actual applications or where to go online to apply.
The five other students at the table, all high achievers with scholarly pursuits, looked in awe, all saying: "I wish we had that at our school."
The scene struck a chord because I worry student opportunities to reduce costs and achieve the college dream fall by the wayside at schools that don't have someone as organized, dedicated and resourceful as Mueller. In 2013, Plant City High seniors earned 84 community scholarships valued at $318,000. Community is the key word. That total doesn't count academic or athletic scholarships to four-year universities. The total comes strictly from the Tampa Bay companies and programs.
Add in the other awards, and the total rises to more than $5 million.
I visited with Mueller to learn more about her efforts and learned three things: 1, she's incredibly organized, 2, she leads with her heart, and 3, she is not bashful.
Mueller's organization fuels the success she has enjoyed in helping students win awards and earn scholarships. A certified public accountant with an accounting degree from the University of Florida, her folders and file cabinets proved even more impressive than Goad described.
In addition to posting scholarships on the bulletin board — and an open door policy for students and parents — Mueller also produces a newsletter that lists scholarship and award information.
The newsletter is emailed to every parent and student who signs up, and it also can be accessed from the school website.
How does one woman do so much? She's got help. Mueller quickly credited a team of 10 volunteers for helping with the process. One does the newsletter, another puts it online, a third helps with the annual awards night.
I'm certain such assistance may make Mueller the envy of other college and career counselors, and the sense of community that envelops Plant City High helps draw people who want to help.
But if no one stepped up, I'm certain Mueller would go find some folks. The Plant City native and former Florida Strawberry Festival queen isn't shy about calling people and asking them to be a volunteer or mentor, or fund a scholarship.
Ditto for seeking students who might be a good fit for a particular scholarship.
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At the awards night, donors get to spend time in a hospitality room while waiting for their recipient to be recognized. Mueller takes photos of each with the winner. When the next year rolls around, she sends photos to various programs and reminds them she has more eligible students who would like to apply.
The personal touch undoubtedly aids in helping her students, and it's their personal touch that has inspired her since she became the college counselor in 2001.
Among all the applications and organization, Mueller holds on to a card from one of her students. In it, he explains that before he received her assistance, he didn't believe college was attainable. Now, not only will he attend Hillsborough Community College, but his younger sister will aspire for higher education and his older brother who gave up on education will try again.
Through encouragement and success, Mueller impacted not just one student's life, but an entire family. In the card, the student wrote, "God's spirit shines through in you."
I hope every student is given reason and opportunity to express such admiration to their college and career counselors.
That's all I'm saying.