Homewood moms Josephine Lowery and Nancy Hale are accustomed to running long distances. They met at church and began training for triathlons, and even ran the Boston marathon together. A few years ago, when their oldest daughters were getting ready for college, they weren’t sure how to go about finding exactly the right fit. They hired Samford professor Mark Bateman to help them navigate the college admissions process, and select the right school for their daughters. Along the way, he told them what he really wanted to do was offer the service to kids whose parents couldn’t afford it.
Together, they created College Choice Foundation, based right here in Homewood, in Josephine’s basement playroom.
Josephine, a retired real estate attorney, knew exactly the kind of kid Mark wanted to help. She had been one herself. “My mom was an alcoholic, and we were on free lunch and food stamps. All I ever knew that I could do to escape that environment was to do well in school.”
She grew up in Auburn and so she planned on going to school there. But then a guidance counselor said she didn’t understand why a gifted and hard-working student like Josephine wasn’t applying anywhere else. Josephine told her she couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, and the counselor told her she could probably get scholarships or financial aid. She didn’t understand. “But I can’t even afford to apply,” Josephine told her.
Josephine says even back then it cost around $75 to apply to each school. Long story short, Josephine’s counselor got those application fees waived and she ended up getting a full scholarship to Vanderbilt, Emory University, Sewanee and Birmingham-Southern. She chose Sewanee and says it offered her a fresh start away from the difficult environment she was in, and made all the difference in her life. “This, College Choice— Mark’s vision — was MY opportunity to give back, to pay it forward, so to speak, the kindness that someone did to me.”
The three of them started College Choice Foundation in 2014 and are on their fifth “generation” of students. Many of the kids, like Josephine, just don’t know what kind of opportunities are out there. “They don’t even know there are schools that will meet their needs,” she says.
And those schools usually turn out to be some of the most elite schools in the country. Small, private colleges have endowments that allow them to help these kids of students above and beyond the kind of federal aid the federal government and state schools can offer.
But first, they have to get there, and the admissions process to private colleges is a much more arduous task than applying to state schools. So, once the foundation selects its scholars, they pay for them to go to ACT prep courses, retake the ACT to increase their scores, help them create a list of colleges that seem like a good fit, and then pay for them to apply to at least 12 to 15 colleges each.
“Everybody has a different and unique story,” Josephine says. “They’re not just low income and smart. There’s usually some sort of narrative that goes along with them because of their circumstances that is compelling and heart-wrenching.”
“They get stressed and they need our help just to support them,” says Nancy Hale. So Nancy and Josephine effectively hold their hands throughout the entire process. They help them with essays, take them to visit schools, buy interview outfits if they need them, and match them with a mentor who meets with them at least once a week. “We spend thousands of dollars to get these kids through the process,” Nancy says. “It takes so much time and money for just one child.” They estimate it takes $5,000 to $7,000 per student.
But the result is so worth it.
Take Maddie Bald for an example. She is a student who was undoubtedly bound for college. No way around it. She scored a 35 out of 36 on the ACT, graduated from Homewood High with a GPA of 4.41, and was third in the Class of 2017.
But even an elite student like Maddie couldn’t go anywhere she wanted. Her father died three years ago, after years of battling alcoholism. “There was a period when my mom was like, ‘Look, you have $5,000 for like all four years. Not $5,000 a year, but like $5,000 for all four years,’ so she was like basically, ‘You get a scholarship or you can’t go.’”
Surely, if any student had a shot at getting a scholarship, Maddie would be it, but it’s incredibly competitive and it takes casting a wide net to get the kind of scholarship she needed. “I knew I wanted to apply to a lot of different places, and we just couldn’t afford to pay $70 an application fee,” she says.
Maddie ended up applying to 17, and one of the last schools she decided to apply to ended up offering her a Presidential Scholarship. It was an offer she couldn’t turn down, so she is a sophomore now, at Boston College. And that scholarship? It’s so elite, only 15 students a year are offered it. With it comes personal attention from the faculty, and programs like an overseas language immersion program she’ll complete next summer. The program has already paid to send her to Venice, Italy, and requires her to do service work along the way.
In the beginning she had been thinking about Auburn and the University of Virginia. And while both of those are fine schools, with an undergraduate enrollment at Auburn at 24,000, and 16,000 at the University of Virginia, there are only 9,000 students at Boston College, meaning Maddie really has a chance to stand out.
Like Mark Bateman asked her the first time he sat down with here: “Maddie, do you want to live in color or black and white?” She chose color, and wants to be a doctor, either an OBGYN or pediatric specialist, and she plans to come back to the South when she’s done with school.
It’s a long haul, but Josephine and Nancy, and all the other members of College Choice Foundation are there for the long run. “It’s been fun to take them to that door and watch them walk through it and take off,” Nancy says. “And they’re going to change other lives with it. They’re gonna do great things with their educations. I KNOW they are. They’re already doing it.”
Maddie has already been tutoring children with autism and worked with adults in prison in the Boston area. Other College Choice Foundation scholars have spent a semester in Japan, earned a spot on an archaeology dig in Spain, and been elected class president.
The only thing Nancy and Josephine wish is that they could reach more students. “We had to turn down a senior (in high school) this year who would have been great,” Josephine says. “We’d love to help more. We just don’t have the resources right now.”
Homewood High Class of 2018
Joshua Ndegwa just graduated from Homewood High and is entering his freshman year at Vanderbilt, his dream school. He was able to apply to close to 20 schools thanks to College Choice. “It’s a lot easier to write when you have a deadline and someone else is expecting it as opposed to when you have to drive yourself,” he says. “They probably drove me a lot harder than I would have driven myself.”
But he’s used to that. Joshua’s mother immigrated to Birmingham from Nairobi, Kenya, when he was not quite 4. She had applied for a green card in the lottery and was the only one in her extended family to get it. She has worked as a nurse ever since, taking the night shift so she could be home when Joshua got out of school. “She wanted me to go far,” he says. “She said, ‘See something different.’”
Homewood Class of 2017
Angelica Everson was born in California, but grew up struggling with poverty, racism and homelessness in Birmingham. She couldn’t wait to leave the state. “I didn’t like being in Alabama,” she says over a Facetime interview, wearing her American University sweatshirt. “I didn’t like being in the South.”
Angelica says she always knew she wanted to go to college because she knew she didn’t want to go through the same struggles she saw her mother go through. She just needed some help navigating the path to college. And that’s what Josephine, Nancy and the other volunteers with College Choice did for her.
“I had no one in my life to guide me through that process,” she says. “My mother works all the time. Like, ALL the time. And whenever I needed a ride home from band practice or rides to ACT prep, they would be the ones to get me there, pick me up, make sure I was okay, fed and got home safely.”
And she’s glad she made it through. “For me, personally, I had to get out of the South. And I’m really happy I did because I would say right now I am living my best life.”
- 4 Points: Average increase in ACT score for CCF Scholars
- 100 Percent: CCF Scholars who have received scholarships and financial aid covering 90 percent or more of their total direct and indirect college expenses
- $8 million: Total financial aid awarded to CCF Scholars since the organization’s inception
Colleges Scholars Have Attended
- American University
- Boston College
- Trinity University
- University of Alabama
- Vanderbilt University
- Washington University in St. Louis
What it Costs
- High-School Scholar Support: $7,500
- College Scholar Support: $2,000
How to Support Their Mission
- Visit collegechoicefoundation.org to make a donation or call 205-401-4212 for more information.
- Attend their Wild West Roundup Fundraiser, held annually in the spring. Find more details closer to then on their website.