It wasn’t long into 2020 that life changed irreversibly. While some coped with working from home, being out of work altogether, or finding themselves having to homeschool their kids, another group was also forced to weather this uncertain time in new way: the high school senior class of 2020. But in Tahoe Truckee Unified School District it was, unexpectedly, a piece of software that shed light at the end of the tunnel for seniors this year.

Three years ago, an innovative upgrade in technology allowed community groups to handle scholarships for seniors unlike it had before. The Tahoe Truckee Community Scholarship Committee began awarding scholarships to graduates 30 years ago, but as the program grew, so did the number of applications. That’s when the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation decided to lend a hand.

“In 2017, we moved from written applications for each independent scholarship process to combining it all into one common online application for students,” explained TTCF community impact officer Phyllis McConn. “The sheer volume and varying application periods and no centralized information for students was problematic. Counseling offices at high schools did their best but student confusion reigned.”

GLAD GRADS: Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s class of 2020 saw 126 receive scholarships totaling over $1 million in awards ceremonies that were forced to go virtual on account of coronavirus school closures. Courtesy photos

Through the help of donors, the community foundation purchased the software and set up the online common application process free of charge to all participating local scholarship providers. It also streamlined the process for TTUSD students by allowing them to apply for multiple scholarships — managed by TTCF, TTCSC, and other local groups — through a single application.

“We provide the software and manage the application process, set up the individual committees and assign out the eligible applications to each reviewer, but each committee listed above runs their own independent review and decision process,” McConn noted.

Three decades after its beginning, the Tahoe Truckee Community Scholarship Committee itself still handles nearly 50 scholarships today.

Nobody could have known back in 2017 that three years later the online application would become more crucial than ever. Coronavirus pandemic school closures forced students to forgo caps and gowns for socially distanced celebrations over Zoom, but that didn’t stop 126 scholarships — totaling over $1 million — from being awarded this year. TTUSD schools’ annual senior awards ceremonies went virtual.

Most impressive to the scholarship community members are the responses from seniors in the essay portion of their applications.

“Kids pour out their hearts and their whole lives in these essays,” McConn said. “… You just get a sense of who they are and how much promise there is out there, and it’s so wonderful to be able to have an effect on that and help them reach their goals and dreams.” 

This year, the student applications were due March 31 — two weeks into the stay-at-home order. Instead of attending traditional how-to meetings with high school seniors to walk them through the application process, scholarship committee volunteers turned their attention to emails and Zoom meetings, guiding students to apply online.

Although TTCF’s volunteer committee awarded $633,700 of the $1,038,000 total this year, none of the funds come directly from the foundation itself. According to McConn, that $633,700 is from a variety of sources including several memorial scholarship funds set up under TTCF, Tahoe Donner Giving Fund, MAP, Truckee Sanitary District, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, and others. There are more than a dozen independent scholarship committees participating with their own awards determined that make up that remaining $404,300.

Tahoe Donner awarded $209,000 (which is included in aforementioned TTCF total); Martis Camp Community Foundation, $204,000; Tahoe Truckee Community Scholarship Committee, $86,300; Tahoe Mountain Resorts Foundation, $62,500; Truckee Optimists Club, $25,000; Independent Order of Odd Fellows, $7500; P.E.O. Chapter XE, $5000; Truckee Rotary, $3500; Truckee Donner Land Trust, $2500; Liberty Utilities, $2000; TXCSEA (Kevin Murnane Memorial), $2000; Truckee Fire, $2000; Truckee Community Chorus, $1500; and TRPA, $500.

And in this year of great changes, a new fund, the PAX House Scholarship, joined the roster of offerings for the first time, with an original plan to ask an essay question about climate change. Given the changing social and economic climate of today, the committee instead questioned students simply, What’s the most important issue to you and why?

“[The students gave] some incredible responses back on COVID-19 and social justice,” McConn said. “I was so struck by how mature the responses were, and how ready they were to take on all these challenges … and they’re staring down such an incredibly difficult time in our history.”

Marguerite Sprague is one of TTCF’s newest selection committee members and was one of the last remaining board members of the PAX House along with her husband before it was liquidated into a scholarship fund. The historic Berkeley home was designed by famous architect Julia Morgan and built in 1923. It continues to house UC Berkeley students, but changed hands in the late 90s when its previous board of directors decided to sell the house and use the funds to support education. They created two scholarship funds, one of which is now dedicated for use by TTUSD graduates.

Sprague said that in her experience on the committee this year, it was extremely humbling to read the students’ applications.

“Bear in mind, these people are 17 and 18 years old,” she noted. “Some of them have intense challenges that would put a seasoned adult to the test to get through … and yet their hopes and aspirations for the future are so vibrant and so strong, and they are so able to see light at the end of the tunnel.

“These students, through their essays, demonstrated perceptive wisdom and a perspective that is so welcome to see. As we [adults are] all kind of worn out, these guys aren’t happy about what they’re facing with COVID-19, with climate change, and economic challenges, but at the same time they are still seeing possibility. They’re saying, ‘My job is looking forward, and I’m going to take these things on.”’