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CCV’s Autumn Morse is First Vermonter to Win Prestigious Scholarship
“If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said, ‘no way would I be going to college,’” says Autumn Morse. In fact, she once doubted that she would even finish high school. And she wasn’t the only one; plenty of others assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her parents, who both fell into substance abuse and never made it through the 8th grade.
While Autumn says self-doubt was a frequent companion growing up in the state’s foster care system, she was also determined to rise above her past. “I wanted to make something of myself,” she says. “I wanted to push the boundaries and exceed people’s expectations.”
Now, at age 21, Autumn has done just that, as one of only 100 nationwide recipients of the prestigious and highly competitive Jack Kent Cooke Transfer Scholarship – and the only Vermonter ever to receive the award.
Sports fans reading this may recognize the Cooke name; Jack Kent Cooke was a former owner of the Washington Redskins, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Kings. After his death in 1997, his estate founded the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which helps fund higher education for exceptionally promising students who have financial needs. Since 2000, the Foundation has awarded $230 million in scholarships to nearly 3,000 students from 8th grade through graduate school. The Transfer Scholarship specifically supports community college students – with awards of up to $55,000 per year – as they transition to four-year schools for their bachelor’s degrees.
Along with having her tuition and housing costs fully covered, Autumn will also have opportunities for internships, study abroad programs and graduate school funding through her Cooke affiliation, as well as a connection to a thriving network of nearly 3,000 Cooke Scholars and alumni.
Autumn says she first heard about the scholarship opportunity from Zach Young, her academic adviser at the Community College of Vermont, where she was a straight-A student and a member of CCV’s chapter of the national honor society Phi Theta Kappa. “He said I should apply. But to me, it didn’t seem like a real thing. It was such a large amount,” Autumn recalls.
On top of the rigorous application – several essays, a highly detailed resume, and letters of recommendation – Autumn faced another significant hurdle. “If you’re under 30, you need to provide your parents’ financial information on the application,” she says. Since she’s fully independent from her parents and couldn’t provide that, she didn’t think she could qualify.
Luckily, she had some champions in her corner; CCV’s Young, and Autumn’s VSAC counselor, Suzie Wagner, made a compelling case for the Foundation to consider her application. “CCV and VSAC have played a tremendous role in my being able to get this scholarship,” Autumn says. “It took a lot of advocacy for me to get here.”
Autumn, who earned her associate degree in health sciences at CCV this summer, says that continuing her college education at another school was definitely not her original plan. “I didn’t want to relocate. I’ve been relocating my entire life,” she laughs.
Indeed, since she entered foster care at age 4, Autumn has “bounced around from one end of the state to the other.” She spent most of her childhood with a big-hearted farm family in Springfield who, Autumn estimates, probably took in more than 200 foster children over the years. “They were great people,” she recalls. “I remember a time when there were 11 of us around the dinner table. I made a lot of friendships through there.”
However, Autumn struggled as a teenager living in the same community as her biological parents, and she started to fall into bad behavior. So, she,
By the time she started at Montpelier High School in 2015, she had missed so much school time that teachers didn’t think she would graduate until 2022. But through sheer hard work and determination, Autumn caught up by “packing in as many credits as I could,” and working with Vermont Adult Learning during her senior year. She ended up graduating with her original class in the spring of 2019, then moved back to Springfield, where she started working in the restaurant at the Inn at Weathersfield, and after a gap year, enrolled at CCV.
Thanks to the Cooke scholarship, Autumn started at Suffolk University in Boston in early September. When she started applying to four-year schools a year ago, Suffolk was the last place she applied to, and at the time, she says, “I didn’t think much of it.” But a campus visit changed her mind.
“When I toured Suffolk, I saw there was so much involvement in downtown Boston. It’s a small school in the heart of a big city,” she says. “It makes you feel like a family. Everybody is there to help you and bring you up. Kind of like CCV,” she adds, noting that her professors there “always made time to meet with you if you needed help – even at 7 or 8 at night.”
She says the same about her VSAC counselor, Suzie Wagner. “Suzie was the best. She’d talk to me through her lunchtime if she didn’t have any open time on her schedule. She was so dedicated to the students.”
While Autumn had considered pursuing a career as a veterinary technician, she switched her major during her time at CCV, and she now hopes to earn her bachelor’s in radiation therapy. “I have a lot of personal health issues,” Autumn explains; she says she’s a bit of a “medical mystery,” since her biological family background is somewhat unknown. For many years, she’s had monthly MRI and CT scans at numerous hospitals, which introduced her to the use of radiation in health care. More recently, two close friends were diagnosed with cancer during her second semester at CCV, when she was taking an anatomy and physiology class and learning about cancer.
“I want to be able to help others. I love making friends wherever I go, and I’d like to be able to build relationships with my patients. Even in the worst of circumstances, even if it’s the last few months of their lives, I might be able to help them smile,” she says.
Autumn’s ultimate goal is to go on to graduate school and become an oncologist. “I guess we’ll see,” she says with a smile. “It’ll all work out in the end.”
It certainly has so far – and receiving the transfer scholarship is a reminder she can do anything she sets her mind to.
“I feel like I’ve achieved something,” she says. “I’m breaking the cycle of the stigma that has happened for generations in my life. I’m excited, I’m scared, I’m happy – I’m emotional. I can’t wrap my head around it.
This story is produced by Vermont Student Assistance Corp., created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 as a public nonprofit agency, to advocate for Vermont students and their families to ensure that they achieve their education goals. Our vision is to create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them. We begin by helping families save for education with Vermont’s state-sponsored 529 savings program. To help Vermonters plan and pay for college or career training, our counselors work with students in nearly every Vermont middle school and high school, and again as adults. Our grant and scholarship programs attract national recognition, and our loan programs and loan forgiveness programs are saving Vermont families thousands of dollars in interest.