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Congratulations, Class of 2024!

Sterbenz-Ryan Recipient Graduates with Big Goals

Today is commencement for many colleges and universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. For many more, graduation is just around the corner. Sara (whose name has been changed for privacy) will graduate from Metro State University in St. Paul today with an impressive degree: Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. While she admits that senioritis was real, Sara doesn’t expect this degree will be the last she earns.

A group of college students stands outside in a cluster with a city skyline behind them. They are all smiling, laughing, and appearing joyful, throwing their graduation caps into the air. They are all wearing long, dark graduation gowns. They represent a mixture of ethnicities; some have light skin tones and blonde hair, some have medium skin tones with dark hair, and some have dark skin tones with dark hair. They represent male and female students. The emotion of the photo is joyful and celebratory.

Sara is ambitious, but her heart leads the way. By the time Sara graduated from high school, she had already earned 60 college credits.

“My goal was to take my credits and apply to a university, and finish out another two years, then go directly to medical school,” said Sara. “But I think I learned pretty quickly – that’s not really how reality works.”

For Sara – a Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship recipient – reality meant needing to take time off school to help care for a family member. During that time, Sara worked as a direct support professional for elderly clients, often working 16-18 hours per day. She also worked as an intern at George Floyd Square, where a large part of her day was showing care and support to visitors and community members. Identity came up often in that work, as Sara talked with visitors about healing and moving forward as a community.

“I’ve thought about identity a lot,” said Sara, who describes herself as a “Black, Muslim, hijabi individual, and female.” She acknowledges how it feels to ask for scholarships, as she puts it, “in the process of identity.” For Sara, seeing strength and opportunity in who she is helps her feel empowered to accomplish her goal and change things for the next generation.

Sara was first awarded a Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship in 2023, which renewed this year. She was able to utilize scholarship funds to help cover tuition, along with federal TRIO funds available to first-generation college students. The Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship provided Sara more flexibility, with income from her job covering the rapidly rising costs of living.

“The way that it was set up for me in Minnesota was that my first year, I still had FAFSA,” Sara said, describing the federal dollars available to many students, which she put toward tuition. “[The Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship money] went toward whatever tuition was leftover for me to pay,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I’m grateful to have an older sister that’s in finance! She kind of talked me through how to save any leftover money to use for the next year, because this year, unfortunately, I had run out of all my FAFSA money.”

Sara has also used savings and income from her job to cover tuition costs out-of-pocket. The Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship, she says, greatly helped her financial situation.

“I had less to worry about,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about, ‘How will I pay my bills?’ Even working is a chore, because you have to think about how much gas will go into the car, the car itself because I have a car payment, the insurance, the bills at home. No matter what, you always have to go to work and pay your bills. But having one less financial barrier is a relief.”

Sara also credits the scholarship with improving her academic achievement. Because she could cut down on work hours, she had more time to devote to studying. 

“I’ve been able to focus more on my schoolwork,” she said, noting that her grades have gotten stronger each semester she has received the scholarship. “I see and I understand when someone doesn’t have a financial burden, how that affects their academics.”

The Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship was established in 2016 from the estate of businessmen Richard Sterbenz and Martin Ryan. The duo ran several businesses in western Wisconsin, including Rich’s Eatery, a real estate business, and a meat distribution company, eventually saving a small fortune.

Although Sterbenz and Ryan grew up under challenging life circumstances and did not pursue higher education, their legacy established the scholarship in the hopes of “giving kids like them a shot at life they never had” – to attend public community colleges, technical or trade schools, or universities in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Each year, around 100 scholarships ($2,000 each) are awarded to students like Sara. Since the Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship first launched, 560 scholarships totaling more than $900,000 have been awarded.

With graduation just around the corner, Sara is proud that she’ll soon have earned her first degree.

“No one can take a degree away from you,” she said.

Sara also has goals.

“I hope to live in a beautiful house,” she said, laughing. “I’ve never lived in a house. I’ve only lived in an apartment. So that’s like a very low-hanging fruit goal. As far as academic goals that I want to make into a career goal, I’ve been looking at the medicinal chemistry PhD, and I’ve also been looking at chemical engineering.”

For our part, we think “Dr. Sara” has a very nice ring to it.

Congratulations to Sara and all of the 2024 Sterbenz-Ryan Scholarship recipients. St. Croix Valley Foundation can’t wait to see what you do next!

To learn more about how you might leave a legacy for students like Sara, contact SCVF President and CEO Heather Logelin at 715-386-9490.



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