Coca-Cola Offers Hope and Support to First Generation College Students at TTU

A small town soccer league has a president, referee and coach, two teenagers see a lot more of their mom, and a widow has time to help out her two in-laws and go to school full time without having to take an extra job -- it's Margie Gifford's success story thanks to one of the world's largest companies and Tennessee Tech University.

Gifford, a mother of three from Alexandria, Tenn., says she's able to do a lot of things for her community and family because Tennessee Tech and Coca-Cola had a vision with heart six years ago when they teamed up to create the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship Program at Tennessee Tech.

In 1993, TTU proposed the "Coke Challenge" with the goal to raise $450,000 for students who were the first in their families to enter college. The Coca-Cola Foundation committed to match every $2 raised with $1, and by mid 1994, enough money had been raised to award the first scholarships. To date, the scholarship endowment at Tennessee Tech is more than $750,000 and has helped 29 students pursue a degree.

The Coca-Cola Foundation then expanded its First Generation scholarship program to other schools. In 1999, they committed nearly $2 million in new funds over four years to 87 colleges and universities and to 30 tribal colleges belonging to the American Indian College Fund in 12 Western and Midwestern states. The program has now expanded to reach more than 700 students in China.

The numbers are impressive, but the changed lives are resounding.

Gifford and her family moved from Seattle, Wash., to Alexandria in 1997, and in August of that year her husband was killed in an auto accident. Alone to help out her in-laws and care for her children, and living so far away from long-time friends in Seattle, Gifford decided to take charge and pursue an education degree at TTU.

While taking 18-19 hours a semester trying to earn a degree before financial pressures mounted, she received a letter saying she had been selected to receive a Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship.

"The timing was unbelievable," said Gifford. "I was committed to finishing my degree, but the next step would have been to take a job to add to an already full schedule.

"These scholarships don't just help individuals, they help families and communities," she said. "I helped start a soccer league here, helped organize DeKalb County Fair events, and have had time to give time to others that I never could have afforded without the support of this scholarship."

When major executives from Coca-Cola recently visited Tennessee Tech to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the program, a majority of the scholarship recipients past and present attended to show their appreciation. Among them were a mother who works and home schools her five children, a male nursing major and a female engineering student.

Their collective sentiments were represented by the words of 1997 TTU engineering graduate and Coca-Cola scholarship recipient Anthony Miller.

"I can say that it has given me more motivation since I know there are people out there who care and want to help other people succeed it this world," he said. "This scholarship not only changed my life, but it will change the lives of my children and my children's children."
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