In her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, Serena Porter struggled in
school but excelled in acting. Her
mother died when she was 13, and from then on she was raised by her
father and stepmother. It was her grandmother who always encouraged
her to get a college education. But she struggled in school, and
moved to Hollywood at age 23 to pursue a career in the entertainment
After a while, Porter got tired of what she calls the “Hollywood
aspect” of the entertainment business. Now she is 32 years old and
her grandmother is in remission from breast cancer, and so she
chases a new goal: To graduate from University of California, Irvine
with a degree in criminology.
“I just want her to see me graduate because she is the one person
who has always been the voice in my head telling me to go back to
school, and because my mom isn’t here to see me graduate,” Porter
But being laid off from her job at an event management company, it
has been difficult for her to pay the tuition costs of a full-time
student at Fullerton College. She considered taking next semester
off to save money.
“Everything goes against you when you’re older . . . A lot of people
think you should already be done with school,” she said. “It’s been
rough trying to finish school because you’re going with a bunch of
18-year-olds who are right out of high school.”
But come Saturday, the burden of financing her education will be
eased with the $2,000 Thurmond Scholarship she is receiving from the
Young Women’s Christian Association North Orange County. The
scholarship was started by Ruth Thurmond in the 1980s, when she
began working with the YWCA to secure basic essentials like food and
shelter for foreign students. In her work, she learned of few
funding resources for women trying to go back to school, said her
son, Don Thurmond.
Mrs. Thurmond’s passion for educating women was planted at a young
age. During her senior year of college – around 1938 – she met the
man she later married, but when they first met her father did not
allow her to wed until she finished college and spent one year
working in her chosen profession – teaching, said Don Thurmond, who
continues his mother’s mission and scholarship even after her death.
In 2010, he was the first man appointed to the YWCA of North Orange
County’s board of directors in 84 years. He serves as the
association’s treasurer and in his role, he oversees investments
made to generate the income from interest that funds the
Other recipients being awarded the Thurmond Scholarship on Saturday
night are Alondra Hucks-Willingham, who is transferring from
Fullerton College to Cal State Fullerton this fall, and Jaren
Koelzer, a current CSUF student. Also, Fullerton College students
Fumi Suhr and Tracy Ailant are receiving awards.
“We have an excellent group of women who truly have serious
financial need, but we also have women, whom we feel are very
dynamic and motivated and will go on to finish their college degrees
and be successful in their careers,” Don Thurmond said.
Alondra Hucks-Willingham has two sons and cares for her disabled
husband. Financial aid has assisted her in paying for her education
since 2008, when she returned to school after 25 years away, but she
needed more money than the amount alloted for her.
At first, returning to an academic life was overwhelming for
Hucks-WIllingham, but her advisor – who shared the same experience
of being a returning student – became her strength.
“I spent a lot of time in the tutoring center and I learned how to
make study groups with a mixture of other returning students and
some of these young, absolutely brilliant people,” she said. “That
was how I made it, that was my biggest obstacle.”
She now plans to major in liberal studies, with a certificate in
special education so she can reach her long-term goal of teaching
special education children, as well as kids who come from lower
“I feel like they are slipping through the cracks because people are
not prepared for that,” she said. “A lot of teachers work in lower
economic schools are only there because they are working off their
student loans. Once they get rid of their loans, they move on, and I
think it is psychologically damaging to the children, when every
three to five years, they have new teachers coming and going. It
just makes me think they feel rejected.”
A little more than a year and a half ago, Jaren Koelzer was
diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After surgery and radio-iodine
therapy, doctors told her that she was cancer-free. One week ago
they found another lump in her throat. But as a single mom to a
12-year-old son, she continues to plan for the future as a mentor to
special education children.
“That was quite an experience – scary, but at the same time, it made
me very determined, especially with my son watching me. You have to
have a lot of strength,” Koelzer said.
Before transferring to Cal State Fullerton in 2010 to be a full-time
student, she spent the past eight years going to school part-time
and working full-time. She hopes to graduate in spring of 2012 so
she enrolled in 19 summer school units, which would have depleted
her bank account and forced her to borrow money from friends or
family, if it were not for the Thurmond Scholarship.
She is studying child and adolescent development and then plans to
enter into the university’s credential program for special education
or into the Orange County Department of Education credential
“I’m amazed that I was chosen among all of the women who applied for
it. I’m very, very honored,” Koelzer said.
After watching her mother and grandmother raise their children as
single mothers who did not have an education, Tracy Ailant wanted to
show her 16-year-old daughter that opportunity is hers for the
taking. Although she never graduated from high school, she passed
the General Education Development Test and enrolled in classes at
Fullerton College, making her a first generation college student in
“I saw myself recreating their [mother and grandmother’s] lives and
I realized that it didn’t work for them and it wasn’t going to work
for me, so something had to change,” Ailant said. “. . . I call it
‘changing the cycle.’”
At Fullerton College, she hopes to transfer to Cal State Fullerton,
where she will major in environmental engineering with a specialty
in energy and water conservation. “I believe in myself and I believe
in the things that I want to accomplish, and it’s nice to know that
someone else believes in it too,” she said.
For now, the Thurmond Scholarship will allow Ailant to cut back her
work hours and spend more time focusing on academics. “It gives me
some self esteem, really. It shows me that, with opportunity and
persistence and determination to make things happen for yourself,
that it is possible,” Ailant said.
Fumi Suhr left Japan for the United States in 2007 to get married.
After two years of abuse from her husband, she left with her newborn
son for a better life. She moved into a shelter and now lives with
her son in an apartment. She is currently enrolled in Fullerton
College’s Extended Opportunities Program and Services Department,
which aims to recruit college students who are educationally and
Her long-term goal is to transfer to a four-year university and
graduate with a bachelors of arts in psychology, and eventually
obtain a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
Story by Amy