‘It was surreal’: Hundreds of low-income Twin Cities students win $16,000 scholarships

Erin Tetter reacts to her news
Erin Tetter finds out she won a $16,000 scholarship from Wallin.
Screenshot via video

Erin Tetter was working her after-school job at Davanni’s Pizza and Hot Hoagies when a man came in wearing a shirt from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She asked him about the college and he went on to explain that he’s been a history professor at UWRF for 50 years and, if she was considering college, it was the place to be. 

“He completely sold me in those five minutes we talked and that day after work, I began the application,” Tetter said. 

When she received her acceptance, the first thing she says she did was calculate how much money she would have to pay. Minnesota residents can get reciprocity at public colleges and universities in Wisconsin, meaning they will be charged in-state tuition, but even with that benefit, the estimated cost was a lot to Tetter.

“It was a hefty sum and so incredibly overwhelming because I do not have enough financial literacy to understand everything,” she said. 

College was always the natural next step for Tetter, who hopes to study elementary education and Spanish, but the price tag of a higher education could not be ignored. 

She began searching for scholarships and her guidance counselor at Harding High School in St. Paul encouraged her to apply for a scholarship with Wallin Education Scholars, a Twin Cities nonprofit. 

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Recently, she and nine other Harding High School and South High School students were invited to record a video recognizing them for their accomplishments. 

One by one, each student sat down in front of a camera and began talking about their plans after graduation. But then, the interviewer interrupted them and handed over a card containing a surprise: They had won a $16,000 scholarship. 

Upon opening her envelope, Tetter broke into tears. 

“It was surreal to get the scholarship,” Tetter said. “I was having a really tough week. This means so much to me. It is a big amount of money I can put toward my education and it takes some stress off my family. We are struggling with money and living situations and, having this to help me, I know I now can afford college and become a teacher to help students the way teachers helped me.” 

This year, Wallin says they helped the most students in the history of their 30 year existence. A total of 316 students received $16,000 scholarships for four-year programs, and nearly 100 received $8,000 for two-year programs. The waiting list remains 500 deep, and President and CEO Susan Bail King says they would help every single student if they could.

“The need is so great, you have to work really hard to make a difference,” she said. 

And they have. The nonprofit has helped thousands of scholars in the last 30 years. In 2021, 89 percent of their scholars were students of color and 73 percent were first-generation students. 

Wallin partners with 58 schools, 55 of them in the Twin Cities metro, says manager of marketing and alumni relations Jean Carlos Diaz. 

Potential scholars are decided based on many factors, but not just those in the typical scholarship application. Diaz said it is an accumulation of not just what they were involved in, but what was important to them. 

“We take into account the whole student, not just activities but if they had a job or had to take care of their family. We want students who are engaged in their world, not just academics, to help us build more equitable communities.” 

In addition to the scholarship, each scholar is assigned an adviser through Wallin that meets with them regularly and monitors their academic progress. 

Like one-third of the current Wallin staff, Diaz was a scholar himself. He went to Blaine High School and then to the Iowa State University for two years. After his second year, he had to withdraw due to mental and physical health issues.

He says it was his assigned Wallen adviser that stuck with him and got him back on track to finish up his degree at Metropolitan State University. 

Tetter said besides the scholarship itself, she is most excited to form a relationship with her adviser and have someone to lean on during college. She described herself as a type-A student who always was working hard to make sure she had the grades to get into college, and now she can finally relax a little.

“This has brought me so much joy,” Tetter said. “For someone who is lower-middle class, this was so impactful because it gave me an opportunity I would not get everyday.”

Erin Teeter poses for her senior photo
Erin Tetter poses for a photo.
Photo provided