When the Trenton Rotary Club sold Rotary Island in the 1960s — the island near Trenton’s northern limits had been purchased by the club in 1917 to house summer programs for children — it used the money to establish a college scholarship program for local students. But last year the scholarship, which pays $2,500 a year for four years, went unclaimed due to lack of applicants.

With the cost of college tuition skyrocketing, students need scholarships more than ever, but the trouble is finding which ones are available and how to apply for them. William Cleave, president of the Trenton Rotary Club, says that students are overwhelmed with the increasingly complex college application process and often miss out on scholarship opportunities.

“Guidance counselors are overwhelmed at these schools,” Cleave says. “As a result many local high school students and their families aren’t even aware of these great local resources and opportunities. Thus, despite the wealth of resources on the Route 1 corridor in Mercer County, many students don’t believe a college degree is possible for them.”

Cleave talked to leaders of other area clubs and found out that they, too, were having trouble awarding scholarships. So he decided to do something about it.

On Thursday, January 11, the Trenton Rotary Club and five other Rotary Clubs will host a free “College Possibilities Night” at the College of New Jersey’s newly built student center from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.community.tcnj.edu. Presenters include Don Betterton, former admissions and financial aid officer at Princeton University, representatives of the Give Something Back Foundation, a nonprofit that awards full-ride scholarships to needy students, and Kevin Wong of Prep Maven.

The presentation will cover the Rotary Club scholarships along with those offered by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, ETS, and others. Representatives of TCNJ, Rider, and Mercer County Community College will also be on hand.

Cleave says he is putting together a master list of scholarships available from local institutions, based on a list created by Mercer County Community College. “There are literally hundreds of them,” Cleave says.

There is a nationwide Internet database available for students to search for scholarships, but Cleave says it is confusing and few students are able to navigate it successfully. There is no such database for Mercer County. “I was amazed there was no central repository for kids in Mercer County,” he says.

In addition to the Trenton Rotary Club, other clubs also give out scholarships.

Princeton Corridor Rotary gives out eight scholarships a year.

Montgomery/Rocky Hill Rotary gives out eight scholarships a year totaling $15,500 a year.

Princeton Rotary gives out one major scholarship each year to a student enrolling at Mercer County Community College.

Robbinsville Rotary gives out six scholarships a year, totaling $6,000 to $7,000.

Trenton Rotary Club’s Lion Woodward Scholarship gives $2,500 a year to four students.

Cleave has been involved in service groups his entire adult life. He grew up in Illinois, the son of a lawyer, and joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Bradley University. Today he is an insurance agent in Pennington and has a 14-year-old son whom he is already preparing for college. Cleave says he was out to dinner recently with friends who had slightly older kids, and they all remarked on how difficult the college application process has become, including finding scholarships. “The admissions process is just incredibly burdensome and confusing,” he says.

The event comes shortly after the opening of TCNJ’s new Brower Student Center renovation, which put millions of dollars into improving the building. TCNJ President Barbara Gittenstein has said in interviews that she plans to make the college more engaged with the Trenton community with events such as this one.

Cleave says the January 11 event is part of TCNJ’s outreach to the Trenton community, and he hopes that many students from Trenton will attend. In addition to hearing talks, students will have the chance to meet people who are giving scholarships face to face. The event will also have forms available in English and in Spanish.

“We’re in this rich area, Mercer County, with lots of scholarships, and you’ve got tons and tons of people going to college who didn’t even know they could get them,” Cleave says. “We’re just trying to get the word out.”

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