Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program Wins National Award

When her husband was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Infantry with post-traumatic stress disorder, Terri Jo Yarnell was propelled from her role as a young stay-at-home mom into that of a caregiver and breadwinner. She knew she needed a college degree to land a job that offered long-term security for her husband and three children, but she couldn’t afford to go back to school.

Then her husband’s therapist told her about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program, an initiative that offers full scholarships to caregivers of servicemembers. The program has earned University of Maryland University College (UMUC) the 2018 Scholarship Provider of the Year award from the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA).

“I … remember sitting at the table with all of my student loans, medical bills, monthly bills and looking over them wondering if it was really worth more debt to go back to school so that I could be the sole provider for my family,” said Yarnell. “The Pillars of Strength Scholarship definitely took a huge weight off of my shoulders.”

Maggie Brubaker, NSPA’s programs and conference manager, said “leadership, efficiency and impact” were among the criteria of the award selection committee but Pillars of Strength stood out for targeting “a group of people who are often forgotten.”

UMUC received the award plaque and a $2,500 prize during an Oct. 3 presentation at NSPA’s annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Kelly Wilmeth, UMUC’s vice president of Stateside Military Operations, said the big “plus” of the award is the spotlight it has turned on Pillars of Strength. Information about the scholarship is being added to the NSPA website, and UMUC officials will be invited to discuss the scholarship program at next year’s NSPA conference.

“The award is going to help bring in more applications,” said Wilmeth. She also hoped the publicity would spark additional donors to step forward. “The goal is to have enough money to never have to say ‘no’ to eligible applicants.”

Pillars of Strength is supported and managed by The Blewitt Foundation and the National Military Family Association, in conjunction with UMUC. Since the program’s launch, it has handed out 22 scholarships, including six in 2018. Two of the scholarship recipients have completed their UMUC degrees, and three are on target to graduate in 2019.

Rich Blewitt, president of The Blewitt Foundation and cofounder of the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program, said “this award recognizes this scholarship is unlike any other and what it means to these extraordinary people. We are so proud to have founded a unique mission that gives to those who sacrifice so much.”

Even without caregiving responsibilities, military spouses frequently face a “double whammy,” Wilmeth added, that affects their ability to build careers. “A lot of them have to give up their job every time they move. Then when they get to a new duty station, they can’t find a job or don’t have the academic credentials they need for a job,” she explained.

Keith Hauk, associate vice president of Veterans Initiatives for UMUC’s Department of Stateside Military Operations, said educational benefits available through the Department of Defense or Veterans Administration occasionally include spouses and other family members, but the terms are restrictive.

“UMUC was founded in 1947, to a large part, to serve military members … and our president, Javier Miyares frequently talks about how the military and veterans are in our DNA,” Hauk said. “To serve military members and veterans you also have to serve the family members—spouses and children—who sacrifice just as much as the military members. That’s what Pillars of Strength is all about.”

In addition to financial aid, the scholarship program provides its recipients with a range of supports, according to Janet Thomas, director of Military Support Processes and Trends Analysis for the Department of Stateside Military Operations.

“They reach out to me all the time, calling to check in to make sure everything’s going OK,” said Yarnell, who became a Pillars of Strength Scholarship recipient in 2016. “As a caregiver, you’re constantly on the run and busy and getting that phone call from them, just checking in on you, means the world to someone stretched thin.

“At one point I was studying full-time and working full-time and it became overwhelming,” she added. “I called Janet—I didn’t want to quit—and she talked to me about options. I decided to back down to part-time study.”

At NSPA, Brubaker said student services were “definitely a factor” in this year’s award to UMUC. “Providers who offer services are more likely to see their students succeed,” she said. “Writing a check is often not enough on its own.”

Nonprofit NSPA is a member association based in Charlottesville, Virginia. It identifies best practices and standards for scholarships, forges relationships among scholarship providers and conducts research on scholarships. Fastweb.com provides the funding for NSPA’s Scholarship Provider of the Year awards.

To learn more about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program, recipients and supporting organizations, see the following videos posted on UMUC’s YouTube page and consult these supporters’ websites:

Remarks by Terri Jo Yarnell

Pillars of Strength Program video

The Blewitt Foundation website

National Military Family Association website

Read the inspiring stories of the 2018  Pillars of Strength scholarship recipients.