HANCOCK COUNTY — On the way to college registration, Wendy Davidson was so anxious, she prayed the car would break down.

While she was studying graphic design, a professor called her work a disgrace. She finished her degree, but the experience left her shaken, discouraged from working in the field she had studied.

But Davidson knew she had to find a way to provide for her daughter, who had been recently diagnosed with autism, so she reached out for help going back to school — years after finishing her first degree.

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Officials with the Hancock County Community Foundation say they’re thinking of folks like Davidson as they revamp their approach to funding scholarships for nontraditional students.

For those whose path doesn’t go straight from high school to college, higher-education programs don’t always follow the schedule of most school calendars. Students might start mid year or take just a class or two when they’re able. In an effort to better support those students, the community foundation is moving to a year-round scholarship cycle for nontraditional students — instead of awarding funds only in June as in years past.

By this fall, officials hope to be able to provide scholarship funding to nontraditional students whenever they need it, said foundation president Mary Gibble.

“It’s important for us to be nimble so we can better address the needs of the community working so hard to go back to school and pursue opportunities that improve their lives and the lives of their families,” Gibble said.

In the last pour years, the foundation has increased the amount of scholarship funding provided to students who have a gap between their high school education and any further education by nearly $2,000, Gibble said. In 2002, the Helen Roath memorial scholarship, the foundation’s first special scholarship for nontraditional students, was established, providing about $250; this year, foundation officials gave six scholarships aimed at nontraditional students totaling $8,000.

It’s important to support people working to change their circumstances, Gibble said.

Davidson, who this year received about $1,700 from the foundation, said one of her former teachers at New Palestine High School inspired her to go back to college to pursue something she truly enjoyed. She signed up for classes in creative writing, her dream career.

Eventually, Davidson hopes to write books for families of children with disabilities, she said.

Her work ethic will help her as she finishes up her senior year, said husband Wade Davidson.

“I’m proud of her on a lot of different levels,” he said. “It’s not easy going back to school. Being the parent of a special needs kid is a lot of work. To juggle school, being a mom and wife — she’s an amazing woman.”

Helping donors support people like Davidson comes easily to Gibble — her path to higher education wasn’t so traditional, either. She graduated from high school and got her associate’s degree, but it took five years of splitting her time between work and school to earn her bachelor’s, she said.

“I have a heart for the nontraditional student,” she said. “By the time they go back to school, they may have a family and be working full time. These scholarships help things along a little bit.”

Supporting their family often serves as a motivator for students who decide to head back to college — or to seek higher education for the first time.

Another county nontraditional student who got a scholarship this year said she wanted to go back to school to set an example for her daughter.

Melissa Hurtado said she always knew she wanted to work with children, but she wasn’t sure how to get to that point. After graduating from high school in 1997, the 38-year-old worked a dozen years at a Shelbyville factory. Then the factory closed.

Hurtado decided to take the leap and enroll for classes after the birth of her daughter, Jade Hurtado, now 8. Her first classes at IUPUI East in Richmond began when her daughter was 3 months old.

She’s taken classes part-time since then, working multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. And a $1,000 scholarship from the community foundation this year has helped her to be able to cover the costs of books and classes.

It amounts to a lot of driving and not a lot of sleep, but Hurtado said she thinks about her daughter whenever it all seems like too much.

“On the days I don’t think I can do it, I remember how she’s been my driving force,” she said. “I want her to know, despite your circumstances, you can achieve your goals.”

Jade has watched her mom work hard her whole life. She is taking those lessons in.

“I’m so proud of my mom,” she said. “I love her.”

One person considered a nontraditional student said he decided to further his education to adapt to his growing family.

Casey Flood earned two scholarships from the community foundation this year to help him finish his bachelor’s degree in construction engineering management technology at IUPUI. The funding, totaling about $3,500, helps him achieve his goal of finishing his degree without using student loans, he said.

He makes staying out of debt a priority because he’s a recent father of two children, he said.

Flood, 25, took on a carpenter’s apprenticeship after graduating from Eastern Hancock High School in 2010. He became a journeyman carpenter after finishing his apprenticeship and then decided in 2015 to get his bachelor’s degree after his wife, Kristen, became pregnant with their first child.

“My apprenticeship was an awesome opportunity, and the job I had would have been a fantastic career,” he said, “but I wanted to be able to better provide for my family.”

Flood works as a project engineer for a commercial construction company in the Fishers area, but he also takes about 12 credit hours a semester, making him a full-time student. He said helpful family members and understanding employers are integral in giving him the flexibility to work — and learn — around the clock.

It’s challenging to schedule his classes so he’s only gone two nights a week, and he’s had to sacrifice time for hobbies and date nights, he said.

It means a lot of late nights and homework done with his 2-year-old son squirming on his lap, but Flood keeps his eye on the goal.

“I’m looking forward to being able to going across that stage and getting my diploma,” he said. “My little girl will remember me graduating from college, and I hope that’s inspirational for her.”

Scholarship opportunities

The Hancock County Community Foundation provides six scholarships for non-traditional students, or people with a gap in time between high school and college.

The scholarships are:

  • Adult Re-Education Scholarship
  • Cargold Scholarship
  • Nancy King “Dare to Dream” Adult Scholarship
  • Maxwell United Methodist Memorial Scholarship
  • Helen Roath Memorial Scholarship
  • Richard and Judith White Memorial Scholarship

For more information or to apply, contact Katie Ottinger, education officer, at 317-462-8870 extension 221 or kottinger@giveHCgrowHC.org.

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.