Scholarships Help Students Focus on Studies
Derek Lewis ’78, ’80 knows first-hand the struggles of earning a degree with few resources of your own. The practicing physician with nearly 40 years of experience grew up in Hughes, Arkansas, a small, impoverished town in St. Francis County.
“Coming from that background, I’ve always wanted to give someone else just a little lift, because someone gave me a chance,” Lewis said. “I had a lot of struggles. Even in medical school I had to do extra things just to eat. I get it.”
Lewis got through UCA and into medical school thanks in large part to Maurice Webb, a long-time UCA history professor. Webb took an interest in Lewis and guided him through the courses he would need and offered advice on how to succeed, fighting in his corner over the years when necessary.
“At the time, I was just a country boy from Hughes. I didn’t know what was going on. I just kind of followed his lead,” Lewis said of his introduction to the university. “Later, I realized that disadvantaged students like I was — I don’t mean disadvantaged by being Black, I mean disadvantaged by being poor — often don’t have the resources or the contacts and don’t have anyone pulling or fighting for them.
“If we can help one or two of those people from small towns to succeed, I think that will be a wonderful thing,” Lewis said.
Today, Lewis mentors students individually, as he once was. About 30 years ago, Lewis founded the Derek Lewis Foundation, which supports community health through education and prevention. The foundation has also awarded hundreds of scholarships since its inception. One, granted last year to current UCA student Braden West, is specifically for Black UCA science majors from eastern Arkansas.
West, who is majoring in health promotion, says that while he did not grow up in an economically disadvantaged home, the scholarship has helped him in a variety of ways. For one, it boosted his confidence.
“I feel like Dr. Lewis read my story and saw potential in me that I probably didn’t see in myself at that time. It’s pushed me to become more open to accepting things,” West says. “UCA has changed my life. I wasn’t an outspoken person; I didn’t care to speak about who I was. But now UCA’s given me the confidence to understand I am somebody.”
Lewis was impressed with West as being “down to earth” and “very, very smart and motivated” and awarded him a scholarship during the 2021-22 school year.
Meanwhile, Tiffani Rana ’12 is a past scholarship recipient who, in 2021, not only earned her master’s in accounting from UCA but also became a first-time scholarship donor.
Rana was four years out of high school and living in Beebe as a single mother to two children when she decided she wanted a college education. She first earned her associate’s degree at the Arkansas State University-Beebe, then transferred her credits to UCA in 2010. In 2012, she graduated from UCA with a bachelor’s in psychology. She’d been working as a bookkeeper for six years when she decided to get a graduate degree in accounting.
“By that time, I was married but it was still hard to go back to school without having some sort of financial support,” Rana said. “I quit my job to go back full-time.”
She’d gotten her undergraduate degree with zero debt, everything funded by scholarships and grants. But she found financial aid was much sparser for graduate programs.
“When I went back for my master’s, I had to take out loans, because the scholarships weren’t enough,” she said.
After graduation, she began working at Hogan Taylor, a Little Rock accounting firm. She’d only been working there a short time when she reached a decision.
“I decided to start a graduate scholarship at UCA because, in master’s programs, scholarships are very few and far between,” Rana said. “I’m not anywhere close to making lots of money but I think it’s important to give people the opportunity. Whatever I have to give, I give it willingly.”
In 2021, Rana founded the Damian and Kaitlyn Rana Breaking Barriers scholarship, a $5,000 a year, five-year scholarship. Single parents pursuing a graduate degree receive top priority for her scholarship.
“I named the scholarship after my kids, because they are the only reason I went back to school. They’re the reason I still go through every day,” Rana said. “And I called it the Breaking Barriers scholarship because, as a single mom, you’re up against the stereotypes and statistics that say you’re not going to do well financially and will have to rely on the government. I wanted to break that stigma and show that single parents really can do it. And to prove to my kids that they can do anything as well.”
Tara Swindle, herself a mother of two children, is among the first UCA students to receive the Rana Breaking Barriers scholarship. A first-year teacher at Nemo Vista elementary school in Center Ridge, Arkansas, she is working on her master’s degree in literacy with a dyslexia endorsement.
“Teaching chose me,” Swindle said. “I have always loved kids. I love teaching, I love learning and I love school. Receiving this scholarship means so much to me,” Swindle said. “It has helped me continue my education to be a better teacher for my students.”
Rana wanted to fund a scholarship specifically for UCA students, where she said faculty go above and beyond for their students.
“I love UCA. They really prepare you,” Rana said. “Some of the classes are tough but they’re tough to help you get where you need to be so that, when you graduate, you can slide into your job without any hiccups along the way. The staff and faculty are amazing. I don’t think I would have survived if it weren’t for them supporting me and being encouraging and helping out whenever I had questions.”
West said that supportive atmosphere carries over to the student body.
“This school really changed my outlook on people, especially about people from different backgrounds,” he said.
“Everybody treats everybody like family. It doesn’t matter where you came from, it doesn’t matter what you did. It’s almost like a fresh breath of air, coming to UCA. I love being able to meet people who are here for the same reasons as I am: to get a degree, to make lifelong friends, and to — hopefully — be successful in the future.”