In 1953, Dr. Mode L. Stone realized that many top-notch students in small, rural communities were not going on to college.
A native of Blountstown, one of those small, rural communities, he had been invited to give the commencement address at Altha High School, in Altha, an even smaller nearby community. Later, he spoke with two of the top graduates who wanted to attend FSU but had no plans to do so. Even with tuition scholarships, college was out of the the question for them, because the cost of room and board was beyond their modest means.
This was in the years following World War Two, when thousands of returning soldiers had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill and received a college education, and the university system had expanded rapidly by the 1950s to accommodate the new influx of students. However, generational poverty still meant that college was unattainable for many bright, capable high school graduates who came later.
A little later, while pondering how to help these two students achieve their dream, Stone realized that if housing could be provided at no cost, the boys could work together and pool their resources for other living expenses to make it work. He obtained permission for them to live in an abandoned barracks at Dale Mabry Field and prevailed upon local business leaders to donate furnishings and appliances. By the end of that semester, word had spread, and 11 young men were sharing the cooperative living arrangements at the barracks.
From these humble beginnings, the Southern Scholarship Foundation was born. Two years later, the foundation incorporated as a non-profit and purchased its first scholarship house.
Kimberly Galban-Countryman, Director of Development at the Southern Scholarship Foundation, visited the Madison Rotary Club to tell the story of how the foundation had grown in the last 60 years, now serving six schools and housing 458 students in 27 scholarship houses. Last year, she told the club, 45 percent of the students in Southern Scholarship Houses were first-generation college students, including many minorities and students from overseas.
The students live together in a community-style setting, working together to keep up the house, sharing a regular schedule of chores, and sharing meals together four nights a week. All funds for maintenance of the scholarship houses come from donations from groups, businesses, civic clubs and other generous donors, while the students pay a modest food and service bill for the semester. It costs the Southern Scholarship Foundation about $3,000 a year to house each student, saving the students an average of $12,000 a year.
In 1961, thanks to Rotary Club donations, the foundation opened the Rotary Club House on the FSU Campus. In Gainesville, the Rogers Rotary House serves female medical students studying any branch of medicine, including veterinary medicine.
The community setting in each house is important, because it is an education for living. Supervised by a house manager, SSF students must learn to live and work together, learning cooperation and teamwork; these students, she believes, are better prepared for success and for life. As an example, she told the audience, three executives at CSX Railroad are former Southern Scholarship students. Many times, students stay in touch with the program and each other even after they leave.
Often, former SSF students help with mentoring or setting up other events to help students. One former student has set up a recurring event to teach them how to dress for success, how to talk and how to behave during interviews to get the internship or the job.
Each year about 100 students graduate, leaving about 100 openings in the houses. And each year, there are about 2,500 applications for those openings. The selection process considers income levels, but the students must be capable, motivated, and have a 3.0 or higher GPA.
Since those humble beginnings in an abandoned barracks in 1953, more than 8,700 students have gone through the program, many graduating with little or no student debt.
“It’s a program that benefits and helps the students,” Galban-Countryman said, whether it is with a successful career that breaks the cycle of poverty…or the friendships that last a lifetime.