DES MOINES, Iowa - Karla Peterson and Jenna Herr, like most people, didn’t know how they were going to afford college. They were concerned about their chances of attending due to high costs and personal struggles. Little did they know, the generosity of a total stranger who died years before they would even attend a university would change them and the lives of 31 other people forever.
For Jenna Herr, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013 and finished graduate school this year, the prospect of being able to afford college while also raising her daughter who she had at 16 seemed impossible.
After getting advice from her boss at the restaurant where she worked at the time, Herr decided to furiously search and apply for scholarships, one of which she came across under the name of Dale Schroeder, a man who would eventually be the ticket she and many others would need to pursue their dreams.
Before Dale Schroeder passed away in 2005, he approached his friend and lawyer Stephen Nielsen asking what he should do with his money after his death, ultimately deciding to set up a scholarship for students in Iowa to be able to go to college — an opportunity he never had.
Nielsen, who knew Schroeder for being a humble carpenter his whole life, didn’t realize that Schroeder’s net worth was just shy of $3 million, and thus began the journey to set up a trust that would provide a future for 33 students unbeknownst to them.
Since the scholarship was established 12 years ago, students in Iowa like Peterson and Herr have interviewed for the highly competitive and highly sought after Dale Schroeder scholarship, which recently paid for its last four students to finish their educational dreams.
Many of the students were so poor, some weren’t able to afford to even transport themselves to their interviews. Nielsen said the committee that ran the scholarship would send them gas money. Some students, including Herr, traveled over 90 miles to central Iowa.
Everyone who received the scholarship got a full ride to a 4-year college education covering tuition, books, fees, room and board.
Peterson, who is currently in her last year of graduate school with dreams of being an occupational therapist, reflected on the opportunity she was given, saying she now has a responsibility to pay it forward.
Because of personal family reasons, she would’ve been solely responsible for financially supporting herself through college, and says without the scholarship, that dream might not be possible.
“Dale was a person who didn’t even know I existed, and he wanted relieve my financial burden so that I could pay it forward afterwards,” said Peterson.
“That’s something he could never do, never attend school,” she added. “Because I was given this great gift and great opportunity, and I was able to learn so much during my undergraduate program, that I can just continue using those skills that I built and just continue to help people throughout my life as well.”
Herr, who has since moved from her hometown in Iowa to work in Chicago, where she manages a global risk and insurance program for the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, says the scholarship was her ticket to get out of her life of “adversity and trauma.”
She says she was so desperate to get out of the situation she was in that she was worried her crying at the interview for the scholarship hindered her chances of being selected.
“I had enough stress as a first-generation college student, even more so because I was parenting a toddler,” says Herr.
“I had all of this external pressure and stress on me that already affected how I went to school everyday and the work that I did, so to have the additional stress of financing my education, maybe would have been too much,” added Herr.
Nielsen said Dale Schroeder was someone who had every reason to be a very bitter person after everything he had been through. Growing up in the depression and having his father abandon his family at an early age, he worked until he was 82 and died when he was 86.
“He was always upbeat and happy,” says Nielsen.
“He didn’t have the opportunity to play sports, or do any extracurricular activities, or go to college or any of that,” added Nielsen.
While Schroeder may not have been able to take advantage of the opportunities he provided his “kids,” which is what the 33 students call themselves, “The impossible is not impossible,” says Peterson.
Peterson’s advice to anyone who was in the situation she was before finding the scholarship is to “Have hope in other people, because there are great people out there who want great things for others.”