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Opportunity Scholarship aims to prepare local students for high-paying jobs

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Many recipients of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship attend the University of Washington Seattle.

In recent years, Washington state has been attracting workers from other parts of the country to fill jobs in growing industries such as engineering and computer programming.

But a scholarship created in 2011 aims to help young people from low- and middle-income families in the state land those jobs.

The Legislature created the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship in 2011. Microsoft and Boeing each donated $25 million to help create the program, and the state matches the investments from private industry.

“We really do see the impact now with 94 percent of our grads employed with an average salary of $60,000," said Naria Santa Lucia, executive director of the program. "And a majority of them, almost 90 percent, are staying in Washington state, so it’s really working.” 

Students can receive a maximum of $22,500 over five years. The money can be used for books and living expenses, not just tuition. Santa Lucia said it covers five years because it often takes that long to earn a degree in science, engineering or another technical field. Students who want to become teachers of math or science also are eligible to apply. The program starts accepting applications Jan. 3.

Many of the scholarship recipients are first in their families to go to college, so the program pairs students with “near-peer” mentors who are a couple of years ahead of them in school. The mentors help students navigate getting into a major and others aspects of campus life.

Santa Lucia said the scholarship program also assigns students mentors from private industry, who help them prepare résumés and get ready for job interviews. She said it’s a way to help students build networks of contacts in high-growth industries in the state. And she said it’s been remarkably easy recruiting volunteers from companies to mentor the students.

“It’s been really heartening to see,” she said.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship will request about $20 million from the Legislature in the upcoming session, Santa Lucia said. The program has received bipartisan support in past years, she added.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.