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Free money for college can come down to simply being left-handed, red-haired or tall

SAN JOSE, Calif. » Are you white and living in Hawaii? A Jewish orphan studying aeronautical engineering? Or maybe your mom, dad or grandma teaches school in Antioch, Calif.?

The University of California may have a scholarship — or two — just for you.

Alongside essay questions and SAT scores, UC’s application for aspiring students has become a virtual matchmaker for scholarship endowments, asking applicants everything from whether they are small-town mechanics, have ancestors from Pon Yup, China, or are interested in dairying, dry-land farming or dance.

UC campuses handed out nearly 10,000 of these undergraduate scholarships totaling $36.5 million in 2014-15 — an average award of more than $3,500, according to its financial aid report.

The “Scholarship Opportunities” section of the application provides a window into the quirky, often clannish world of donors looking to help a very specific type of person, including descendants of Civil War veterans — with separate funds for each side.

Students sift through these and other obscure opportunities as they enter the thick of scholarship season, appealing to donors to finance their high-priced educations based on their leadership skills or academic record — or maybe their height or hair color.

“One of my friends really did get one for having red hair and freckles,” said Grace O’Toole, a UC Berkeley freshman who has neither.

At UC, there’s even a scholarship for USA Freestyle Martial Arts “red belts.”

While the majority of student aid comes from government sources, students piecing together upward of $34,000 a year for a UC education — and that is with in-state tuition — say that every bit helps.

O’Toole applied for more than 20 private scholarships, writing an essay about a zombie apocalypse for one fund and reading an essay about fire safety to enter a scholarship lottery by the American Fire Sprinkler Association — long odds she compared to winning the Powerball jackpot. (According to the association, up to 60,000 high school seniors enter each year in the hope of snagging one of 20 $2,000 awards.)

She said she was “a little bit thrown” by the oddness of the UC scholarship list but filled it out anyway, not wanting to close off any possibilities.

Berkeley High School counselor Teri Goodman advises her students to check all of the boxes that apply to them in the UC application, including one for disadvantaged minority students attending Berkeley High.

She finds some of the items funny, she said, but she doesn’t think her students are all that amused.

“I think they’re just sort of wrapped up in the overwhelmingness of it all,” she said. “I don’t think they see the irony that’s sometimes there or the oddness of the question.”

But UC doesn’t have a monopoly on quirky cash for college. While scanning a UC Berkeley site for outside scholarships, Kristyn Fudge spotted another unusual opportunity last spring — brought to her by Budweiser, whose product she will legally be able to drink in less than three years.

Bud’s maker Anheuser-Busch is underwriting the bulk of Fudge’s undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, covering four years of hefty out-of-state tuition — more than $150,000 — as part of a recruitment and training program that includes summer internships.

The scholarship application was more intensive than most job interviews, involving a “video cover letter” and a panel interview in the company’s St. Louis headquarters.

When she got the award, her parents said they would start drinking a lot more Budweiser.

“It was out of the blue, something I hadn’t expected to happen,” said Fudge, a freshman chemical engineering major.

Fudge also happens to have red hair, but she did not apply to scholarships based on physical characteristics or luck. “I actively avoided those,” she said. “I couldn’t tell if they were real. You have a better chance if you apply to the scholarships that are more merit-based, that you can really shine your personality through.”

But her chief advice is simple: Put your name out there.

“If you don’t apply,” she said, “you’re not going to get it.”


©2016 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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