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Women Remember, Help Others Resume Educations

<i> Doheny is a Burbank free-lance writer</i>

When Elizabeth Layne, 44, enrolled at Los Angeles Pierce College to study psychology, she found life far from easy.

Many of her classmates were less than half her age. Chronic back pain made trekking to classes on the 427-acre Woodland Hills campus difficult. And money was scarce for Layne, who was in the midst of a divorce.

“I often had to decide whether to eat or make a car payment,” she said recently.

Despite the obstacles, Layne endured. Now 52, she is practicing hypnotherapy in Van Nuys and planning to remarry soon.

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Scholarships Reciprocated

But the Woodland Hills woman hasn’t forgotten the desperation and frustration that marked her early college days. Nor has she forgotten the scholarship money she occasionally received from the WoMen’s Resource Center at Pierce--small amounts that sometimes made it possible for her to eat and make the car payments.

Today, Layne is on the giving end of scholarships. In 1984, she established an individual scholarship to aid students who have returned to school after a prolonged absence. This year, she’ll give two such scholarships.

Four other women who have graduated from Pierce, or who plan to do so soon, have also established scholarships to help other women or men who are resuming their education.

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The pioneer donor of individual scholarships--and Layne’s benefactor--was Lila Soler, 58, of Canoga Park who returned to Pierce in 1977 and hopes to graduate this year from California State University, Northridge.

Modest Amounts

The sums given for individual scholarships are usually modest--some are for less than $100--and are intended to help returning students pay for books (which can run $40 a class), tuition ($50 for a full load of classes) or other necessities, such as child care or transportation.

Together, the five women give about $4,000 a year in scholarships that help 12 or more students, said Barbara Fish, director of the WoMen’s Resource Center.

Administering the individual scholarship program is just one task of Fish and her staff. The center was set up 10 years ago to aid students re-entering college. At a time when other such programs are being discontinued, the center at Pierce provides plenty of help for returning students. Besides the individual scholarships, the center offers weekly support-group discussions, free legal aid, counseling, guest lectures and loans and grants with funds provided by the Woodland Hills Woman’s Club, the Calabasas Woman’s Club and the Woodland Hills Business and Professional Women’s Organization.

‘From People’s Hearts’

Of all the center’s offerings, however, the individual scholarships are perhaps the most unusual. “The individual scholarship program began in 1981 and grew without any solicitation on our part,” Fish remembered. “It’s a program that grew from people’s hearts.”

Some women scholarship donors were perhaps inspired, she added, by the continuing donation of the Woodland Hills Woman’s Club, the first organization to contribute to the center.

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When graduates or students express a desire to set up an individual scholarship, the WoMen’s Resource Center gives them free rein, encouraging them to set up their own criteria. As a result, the scholarships attract applicants with a wide range of interests in academic achievements.

Most donors seek applicants who are 25 or older, who have been absent from school for five or more years and who maintain above-average grades. They also add individual touches to the requirements.

Special Requirements

Layne, for example, looks for applicants with “financial need and personal motivation.” Her ideal applicant is a student “who will make it, but needs that stroke of faith” a scholarship might provide.

Another scholarship donor, Tamara Gaer of Woodland Hills, seeks applicants “who have made a contribution to campus life,” among other things. Now a successful travel agent, Gaer, 34, was a high school dropout who participated in student government while at Pierce and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Northridge.

Soler, the first to set up an individual scholarship, asks applicants to write an essay explaining why they want an education. Edith Ryan of Canoga Park, another re-entry student who now serves as director of Woodland Hills-based Identity, a support system for the physically disabled, thinks it is most important that the recipients of her scholarship “want to learn.”

Nontraditional Fields

Helene Kamzan, 54, of Reseda, who is president of her own industrial supply firm and a part-time Pierce student, set up scholarships to encourage women entering nontraditional occupations, such as welding.

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The scholarship donors may help select their recipients or leave it to Fish and her staff. Choosing, acknowledged the donors who take part in the selection process, is never easy. Soler calls the selection day “the most difficult of the year.” Last year, 15 women applied for her scholarship.

Yet, donors agree, the appreciation of recipients more than makes up for their time and effort. As some of the donors know from personal experience, scholarships, which are awarded at different times throughout the year, can often mean the difference between dropping out or staying in school.

Mary Tellez, 32, a recipient of one of Soler’s scholarships, used the money to help pay for child care and books. The North Hollywood resident, divorced and the mother of three young children, has been attending Pierce for four years, hoping to make a career change to computer programming to better support her family.

“The (scholarship) money has meant a great deal,” said Tellez, who also works part time in the WoMen’s Resource Center. “Financially, I really needed the help.”

An Emotional Boost

But both donors and recipients say it’s not just the money that’s appreciated. The accompanying recognition that scholarship winners receive provides an extra boost, as one recipient, Fanita Welsh, 52, of Canoga Park, noted in a recent thank-you note.

“The awards certainly do lighten the burden,” she wrote, “but they are also a validation of my efforts that I have not experienced before.”

Donors insist that they get more than they give.

Said Soler: “What I hear from people is, ‘You’ve changed my life. You’ve shown you have faith in me.’ ”

Most donors plan to give their scholarship annually. Asked why, Kamzan quipped, “It’s a hell of a tax write-off.” Then, her tone turned serious. “A lot of people have given to me. Giving back is a satisfying feeling. And, after all, what are we here for, except to extend a hand?”

On Tuesday, the WoMen’s Resource Center will present “Return to Education Day” at Pierce College to acquaint prospective students with campus opportunities.


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