Seanna Perkins. Courtesy of Perkins.

To get her full tuition scholarship at New River Community College, 19-year-old Seanna Perkins had to perform 100 hours of community service in summer 2021, including packing and delivering sacks of food for low income Giles County families. 

“The burden that it took off me to not have to pay for college for a year, I just felt so much better about not being in so much debt already,” she said.

Meanwhile in Roanoke, a similar scholarship program for Virginia Western Community College students requires just four hours of community service per semester. Even that came as a surprise to 19-year-old Zavier DiStefano, who is in his second year of study.

“Oh my gosh, really?” he said. “I’ll be honest, I had no idea there was a community service requirement, unless I’m doing something in my area of study that is being counted.”

College-bound students are accustomed to including volunteer experiences on scholarship applications to increase their award chances. But for certain taxpayer-subsidized scholarships, the hours of service required of recipients ranges widely depending on the community college and the student’s home county.

“If some colleges offer programs with different public service requirements for their local scholarships, that’s a reflection of the fact that our colleges have a autonomy to meet the needs of their service regions,” said Jim Babb, Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Strategic Communications for Virginia’s Community Colleges. “There are many local and regional foundations that support our 23 colleges statewide, and most are closely attuned to their local economies, needs and cultures.  Public service may be built into some student financial aid packages as a refection of local social standards.”

In the Roanoke Valley, the Community College Access Program (CCAP) is a public-private partnership that pays the cost of tuition for three years at Virginia Western. Founded in 2008 in partnership with Salem High School, CCAP expanded over the following five years to include Roanoke City and the counties of Franklin, Botetourt, Craig and Roanoke. 

Half of the tuition cost is funded by local governments with the other half raised from private donors and foundations. In 2021-22, local governments contributed $783,500, matched by 52 private sources, according to the Virginia Western Educational Foundation. 

A key stipulation for recipients is performing four hours of community service each semester. Through 2021, CCAP had helped 3,414 students, who in turn performed 25,189 hours of community service.

But Covid impacted service opportunities, said Carolyn Payne, Virginia Western’s CCAP and Scholarship Program Coordinator. Previously, she maintained a master list of some 25 area nonprofits, from the SPCA to area food pantries, as well as allowed students to serve at their churches or organizations with which they were already affiliated. 

“We feel like it’s appropriate for them to give back to the community that has supported them with donations to the CCAP program and thinking about something other than themselves,” Payne said. “The feedback we’ve gotten through the years is just phenomenal. They’re really good ambassadors for college. While they’re doing their project and interacting with people it helps push them out of their comfort zone to develop soft skills.”

For her 800 CCAP students, Payne plans to resume the modest volunteer requirement in the fall. She is stunned that New River Valley students must perform 10 times as much service.

“I am amazed by that,” she said. “I know the philosophy here was, and has been, we want them to focus on learning. Our students are in school, many are working full time in many cases, have families, so we felt like four hours would be sufficient. I am just amazed that New River can get 40 hours.”

For those coordinating New River Community College’s version of CCAP, the service requirement is part of the learning. 

Called Access to Community College Education (ACCE), New River’s scholarship program is also a 50-50 public-private partnership. It was launched by Giles County in 2016 and now includes the counties of Montgomery, Floyd and Pulaski and the city of Radford. 

ACCE targets new high school graduates who typically don’t have as many work or family responsibilities to juggle. Unlike Virginia Western, the community service piece is managed by the individual governments, which require 80 hours per year, or in Giles County’s case, 100 hours.

“One of our main objectives is to develop young men and women to be community oriented and give back,” said Charlie Mullins, Giles County’s ACCE Coordinator. “When we send kids to community college we’re hopeful they’ll come back and stay in our community. We feel like it is a major contributor to community health. I’ve been in government work for 40 years and I’m going to say it’s one of the only programs that doesn’t receive any complaints.”

Michael Geary, ACCE Volunteer Coordinator in Montgomery County, manages the service requirement for 300 students. He provides a list of governmental and nonprofit volunteer opportunities – such as remodeling school classrooms in summer, assisting with camps, refereeing games – and leaves them to the students to select and fulfill.

Students who don’t meet the requirement lose their scholarship. “Generally we’ll find and help students before they’re disenrolled,” Geary said. “We want every student who enrolls in the program to be successful.” 

He does offer a few exemptions on a case-by-case basis for students with family or transportation issues, and fewer than 10 percent of ACCE students are disenrolled each year.

“I do this essentially as a volunteer,” said Geary, who works as the county’s Director of Fire and EMS. “I’m a huge fan of the program. It’s a great opportunity for students to enroll in higher education and pursue rewarding careers that they wouldn’t do otherwise. For the amount of tuition they’re getting I think 80 hours is a low requirement.”

Giles County originally required 80 hours, some of which involved helping with the annual Muddy ACCE Race that raised funds for the scholarship program. The majority of hours were assigned to supplement the county’s workforce: maintaining the public golf course, cleaning the animal shelter, and so on. 

Before the rise in minimum wage, Mullins estimated the 60 students who typically participated each year in the program provided $60,000 of service to the county. 

Giles County later added another 20 hours that the students fulfill on their own, said Mullins. “They can attend a Board of Supervisors meeting, help at their church, coach cheerleading or football. We want to stretch and grow them into more productive members of society … and better appreciate county services.”

Before starting the program, Mullins says students typically can’t name any supervisors or county officials. “When they graduate they’re going to know the powers that be. We feel like the community service aspect of this scholarship is as important as the education they’re receiving.”

Regardless of the jurisdiction, the tuition-free benefits are life-changing for the recipients.

DiStefano graduated Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke in 2021 and is now halfway through his Associate’s in Health Science and Nursing degree at Virginia Western. He hopes to one day earn his Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Radford University. 

“That was probably my best decision so far as far as my education goes,” he said. “Financially I could have gone and not have to use CCAP, but I didn’t want to have to rely on my parents. I wanted it to be me.”

A graduate of Giles High School in 2021, Perkins has already earned her General Studies degree from New River and is enrolling in the fall at Virginia Tech to pursue a Mathematics Education degree. Her career goal is to return to Giles County and teach high school math.

“Through a lot of the work I did, mostly through ACCE, I noticed a lot of need in our community for education, so that’s the best place to stay,” she said. “When I started I was like, ‘yeah right, that’s really going to work,’ but working with Giles County employees made me realize that the county is not just the boring old county I’ve lived in all my life. There’s more to it. There’s more opportunity, more work to be done. 

“I was just grateful that it was even an opportunity given to me.”

Michael Hemphill

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who has spent the last 20 years becoming an entrepreneurial nonprofit leader in Southwest Virginia. He is...