The Scholarship Coach Feature: Turn Your Community Service Into College Cash

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by Matt Konrad

The great poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that "no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." Never does that statement ring more true than when you're looking at higher education. Helping others in your community—whether it's by building houses, delivering meals, or feeding animals—is truly its own reward, but it can also have tangible benefits when it comes to attending and paying for college. Here are a few avenues through which your volunteer service can translate into college scholarships or student loan forgiveness:

1. Local, national, and nontraditional scholarship programs: As always, the first place to look for scholarships that feature a community service component is in your own backyard. Much of my own volunteering in high school was initially spurred on because I knew the local Rotary, Elks, and Kiwanis clubs based their scholarship awards not only on academics and activities but also on self-started community service. Scholarships like these can add up; some, like the Dollars for Scholars Community Volunteer Service Award, also enter their local winners into national competitions.

In addition, volunteer experience can pay off via some national scholarship programs. Prudential Financial, Inc. sponsors the annual Spirit of Community program for middle and high school students, honoring two winners from each state and the District of Columbia. Applications are evaluated strictly on volunteer community service. Each state honoree receives a $1,000 award and a trip to Washington, D.C., with 10 national honorees receiving $5,000 in scholarship funds as well as a $5,000 grant to award to a charity of their choice. This year's honorees will be announced on February 8, so check out the list to get some ideas.

The Kohl's Cares scholarship program features a similar dedication; young volunteers (ages 6-18) can apply at the Kohl's Cares website, and their volunteer efforts will be evaluated. Regional winners receive $1,000 scholarships, and national winners each take home a $10,000 scholarship. Applications for the Kohl's Cares program are open until March 15, so there's still time to get yours in!

[Read 4 hints to avoid missing scholarship deadlines.]

There are also some less traditional but incredibly lucrative programs out there: If you're a high school junior who's done outstanding volunteer work in the face of adversity, don't miss out on the Discover Scholarship Program, which awards up to 10 scholarships of $25,000 each for volunteering and leadership. If you're under 25 and working on "world-changing" projects, check out the Do Something Awards, which provide not only scholarships but funding for your nonprofit cause, issue, or organization. And if you're about to graduate from college and have a great public service idea, the National Grid's Huntington Public Service Award offers a $10,000 stipend to one annual recipient who wants to spend a year volunteering.

2. AmeriCorps' suite of government benefits: The wide array of programs that fall under the federal government's AmeriCorps public service initiative can also have a big impact on your education's bottom line. AmeriCorps provides public-service workers to communities across the country. If you sign up for AmeriCorps, you'll work for 10 to 12 months in a community service job, for which you'll receive a modest (but livable) stipend.

You can choose from three major programs: AmeriCorps State and National (which assigns workers to communities based on their need and your interest); VISTA (which focuses specifically on poverty relief); or NCCC (which builds teams of volunteers and sends them to specific project sites).

While you're working with AmeriCorps, you're eligible for significant benefits under the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act. You're classified as a public service worker for the purposes of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and your loans will become even easier to pay off thanks to the Income-Based Repayment plan. As an AmeriCorps public servant, your income is low enough that you'll benefit from everything that plan has to offer. Check out the Benefits FAQ for more information, since each case is unique.

[Learn about managing student loans via Income-Based Repayment.]

Once you've completed at least one term of AmeriCorps service, you're also eligible for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. Each full year of service entitles you to a monetary award, currently $5,500, which you can use for a host of qualified education expenses, including loans. You have seven years to use the Segal award, so it can be valuable even if you're not facing outstanding expenses right away.

One other note: the Peace Corps also features a number of benefits, including transition funding and, in some cases, loan deferment and graduate school credit. The term of service is longer—at least two years—and the work is outside the United States, but if you're a dedicated volunteer it's worth looking into.

3. Non-monetary recognition and experience: While there are plenty of ways to benefit directly from your volunteer work, we should note that some of the most valuable rewards are non-monetary. Every scholarship application you encounter would be enriched by including recognition like the President's Volunteer Service Award or the Congressional Award for Volunteer Public Service, both of which require nothing more than documenting and explaining your volunteer work.

And who wouldn't want to include a link to your appearance on PBS? The ZOOM Into Actionprogram lets you share your public service stories, and students are regularly shown as part of PBS broadcasts.

The rewards of volunteering are significant and wide-ranging. Dedicating time to public service creates new experiences for you, a better community around you, and a deeper understanding of the issues we all face. And, thanks to programs like these, giving back can also give you a few more options as you tackle paying for college.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.

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