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Charlotte area scholarship helps mothers realize their college dreams

Susan Andersen, left, founder of a Charlotte scholarship for mothers attending college, with Amanda Ruiz and her son Jayden, 8, at the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte. Ruiz, who is working on a degree in finance at UNCC, is a recipient of the ANSWER scholarship.
Susan Andersen, left, founder of a Charlotte scholarship for mothers attending college, with Amanda Ruiz and her son Jayden, 8, at the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte. Ruiz, who is working on a degree in finance at UNCC, is a recipient of the ANSWER scholarship. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

When Amanda Ruiz decided to apply to UNC Charlotte, she wasn’t sitting in a guidance counselor’s office or celebrating her senior year of high school. She was in her late 20s, and was at the hospital...again.

It was 2014, and doctors had just told her about the potential treatments she needed to undergo in her battle with Crohn’s disease. The inflammatory bowel disease can cause life-threatening complications, and has no cure. Fed up with lost opportunities, she decided to go after what she always wanted: a college education.

So she grabbed her phone and started the application from her hospital bed.

Ruiz, 29, is the mother of 8-year-old Jayden, and the sort of woman who inspires Susan Andersen, the founder of a Charlotte non-profit that gives scholarships to mothers in college. After Ruiz started at UNCC in 2015, a professor persuaded her to apply for the Answer scholarship.

Andersen was impressed. “She didn’t just lay down, she chose to make decisions that were not always easy,” she said.

Andersen, 54, had once benefited from a scholarship and wanted to pay it forward. A local group funded about a third of her tuition to UNC Charlotte, and she never forgot the generosity of the donors.

In her own business career at Mary Kay, she’d seen many women and single mothers struggle, and she wanted to make a difference for mothers looking to go to – or back to – college. In 2006, Answer gave out its first four scholarships.

Now they’ve given out 83 scholarships totaling $198,000 to 44 women. Andersen said they start accepting applications each January, looking for mothers 25 and older who are passionate about education with at least one school-aged child. Individual awards range from about $3,000 to $5,000.

“We want them to have good grades, and we want to see what they’re made of,” Andersen said. “The ones that seem to take ownership are the ones that have been most successful.” All eligible mothers looking to go to college can apply, she said, noting that its not limited to single moms.

The scholarship (answerscholarship.org) supports women who live in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties who want to attend an area college, excluding for-profit schools. This year, Answer has 13 scholarship recipients and hopes to get to the point where they can award 50 scholarships annually.

The scholarship money comes from a mixture of local organizations, women’s groups, houses of worship and individual donations. She said the Leon Levine Foundation has been exceptionally generous, giving the program its first grant.

The donations are directly impacting women like Ruiz, who are non-traditional students trying to set good examples for their kids. Ruiz, who started a local spray tans business on the side, was selected by Answer to be a Levine scholar, which rewards academically outstanding students with additional scholarship money.

“This means the world to me,” Ruiz said. “(My son) thinks it’s great.” She said he loves walking around telling everyone about how smart his mom is.

“He wants to be a doctor so he can cure Crohn’s disease, that’s his goal,” Ruiz said. When he asks her why she’s studying so much, Ruiz said she tells him that when you’re behind, you have to work harder.

She said her son has put this work ethic into practice, too. Though he was behind in reading at the start of last school year, he finished above grade level. “He sees how you get out what you put in,” she said.

Ruiz attempted to go to East Carolina University after high school, but she was only there a few weeks when she had to leave because of Crohn’s.

The finance major said she realized the importance of financial planning when her father suffered from brain damage after being assaulted at 39, and doctors found a brain tumor in her mother at 40. A year later, when Ruiz got her Crohn’s diagnosis, the family had no savings to fall back on.

She watched her family’s car get repossessed when they could no longer make the payments. “When you fail to plan, it impacts your family,” she said. That’s why she wants to help others plan for whatever life might bring.

Answer also supports their students with a mentor program that helps them establish a community of similar women. “It’s so nice to have people that are genuinely invested in your success,” she said. “I want to keep doing better so I can make them proud.”

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