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  1. Education

Tampa to host fund-raiser for program that sends first-generation students to UF

TAMPA — Students from Tampa who are the first in their families to attend college have been getting help from a University of Florida scholarship program for more than a decade — and now, Tampa is giving back.

For the first time, a fund-raising dinner is scheduled in Tampa to raise money for the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program, designed to give first-in-family, low-income students the chance to graduate without having to work while in school.

Tampa attorney Carter McCain, a UF graduate and long-time contributor to the program, is scheduled to speak at the dinner Thursday.

"I wanted to do something that had a lasting impact," McCain said. The program "is not just writing a check; it's starting a whole new cycle of higher education that didn't previously exist. It's breaking a cycle."

That's the hope of Brenda Obana and her family.

The 20-year-old Tampa woman moved here from Cuba at age 7, and with her brother, became a U.S. citizen in 2014.

"Ever since I can remember, I was a good student, always focused and determined to do well," said Obana, who worked full-time while attending Leto High School.

Money was a factor as she considered college.

"I felt like my parents had made sufficient sacrifices for me, and it was time for me to work as hard as they had," she said.

But her mother told her to forget about money and follow her heart. So she applied for admission at UF, the only university in Florida that's a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities.

Obana was invited to apply for a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship and was accepted.

"I was so incredibly thankful, but I couldn't believe it."

In 2006, UF President Bernie Machen used a $2 million grant to establish the scholarship program. It was renamed for Machen in 2012.

Any first-generation, academically qualified Florida resident whose family makes less than $40,000 a year is accepted.

But the average family income of students in the program is just $18,408, according to the university website.

The program pays for returning students and 300 new students every year. Through 2016, nearly 4,000 students from 65 of Florida's 67 counties had received full rides to UF through the Machen scholarships.

Two-thirds of students in the program graduate in four years compared to just 30 percent graduating in six years among their low-income, first-generation peers.

Each scholarship amounts to about $10,000 and is combined with Pell grants, Florida Bright Futures grants for academically qualified students, and private scholarships to cover tuition, books, room and board and transportation.

Students must pass 12 credit hours every semester, take specific classes and attend workshops on career options and financial literacy.

"We find that students are most successful and manage their time a lot better when taking a full course load," said Leslie Pendleton, UF's senior director for retention.

Students must also participate in a peer mentoring program to ensure they graduate with a sense of responsibility for their community. Brenda Obana's time as a mentor has enabled her to meet scholars who contributed to her personal and academic growth.

Obana also attributes her success to those who contributed money to the program.

"It gave me motivation, these donors, the people that believed in students like myself enough to pay for our expenses," she said. "I knew I couldn't let them down."

Obana has worked in a pediatric neuropsychology research lab and clinic, interned at the Child Advocacy Center in Alachua county and served as a senator in student government. She expects to graduate in spring 2019 and then enter medical school.

The fundraiser in Tampa, attorney McCain said, will include speeches by successful graduates and will also promote an ongoing $3.5 billion capital campaign to advance UF's Warrington College of Business.

McCain, 54, who has two daughters enrolled at UF, recalls that he changed more in college than at any time in his life.

"Universities always want money," McCain said. "But when you hear the reasons behind this one, you want to give. This is going to change a person, then a family, then a community."

Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin