benaquisto scholarship

A full-ride to UF could cost a life for recipients of the Benacquisto Scholarship.

The scholarship is offered in the state of Florida to National Merit scholars — those who do exceptionally well on the PSAT. But in order to be debt free, out-of-state recipients were forced to honor a potentially life-threatening requirement this year: living on or near campus.

The requirement is different for Florida residents who receive the scholarship, as they aren’t required to live on or near their university’s campus, according to the scholarship’s fact sheet. Along with covering tuition, out-of-state fees are waived for non-Florida residents. 

Rather than the usual anticipation and excitement that comes with high school graduation, the Class of 2020 faced uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Up until the reveal of UF’s July 10 reopening plan, it was unclear whether there would even be any in-person classes. Ultimately, the university decided only 35% of classes would be in-person or “hybrid” — a mixture of online and face-to-face.

Incoming freshmen were still forced to make decisions about the schools they’d be attending — virtually or not — and where they’d be living. 

Shane Ferrell, a 19-year-old UF finance freshman and Benacquisto recipient from West Virginia, thought he’d be able to stay home and do his classes virtually, avoiding risk of infection.

But, Ferrell had no choice but to move to campus if he wanted to attend UF with a full ride. 

The Alligator has confirmed at least two positive COVID-19 cases in Ferrell’s dorm, Simpson Hall, and he said he’s aware of someone who tested positive and was at a club meeting he attended. 

To receive the scholarship, out-of-state recipients must “physically reside in Florida on or near the institution’s campus where enrolled,” according to the scholarship’s fact sheet. 

“We were forced to make a decision without really knowing all the details on how the semester would play out,” Ferrell said.

Ferrell didn’t accept UF’s offer until the end of April — a day before the deadline — because he was still waiting to hear about scholarship opportunities for other schools, he said. 

When he later found out the majority of classes would be held online, he said he felt relieved. He thought he would be able to stay home for the semester. But, a friend informed him of the Benacquisto scholarship’s housing requirement for non-Florida residents.

Ferrell ultimately decided he couldn’t turn down a debt-free college experience, despite the risks the requirement posed.

“My options really were getting the education and have the risk of being exposed to coronavirus, or stay home and not receive an education,” he said. 

An email UF sent to another recipient of the scholarship said the on-campus residency requirement would not be waived for out-of-state students, despite the threats of the pandemic.

“OSFA [Florida’s Office of Student Financial Assistance] has indicated that there will not be any exceptions to the existing statute regarding student initial eligibility for the Benacquisto Scholarship,” the email read.

The student received the email on July 23 — six days after the deadline to cancel on-campus housing contracts without incurring cancellation fees. Ferrell said he never received this email.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Florida legislative session was delayed. The Florida Legislature is responsible for making changes to scholarships such as the Benacquisto scholarship, said Cheryl Etters, Florida Department of Education’s deputy director of communications.

“We are not aware of any proposed changes to current law regarding the housing requirement,” Etters said.

Lela Myers, a Benacquisto recipient and 18-year-old UF exploratory freshman from Colorado, expressed similar frustrations.

“At one point I thought I might literally be choosing to risk my life to avoid a bunch of college debt, which just didn't sit right,” Myers said.The dilemma made her feel so bad that she could hardly think about college for a month, Myers said. She ultimately decided to enroll at UF and move to campus — Reid Hall, in which The Alligator confirmed has had at least one positive COVID-19 case.

“The idea that something could go wrong and I could die from choosing to go to the free school; it's terrifying,” she said. 

Myers said she would’ve preferred to attend UF virtually while living at home in Colorado, which she said has remained relatively safe throughout the pandemic.

“They want us to spend some of the Benacquisto money on housing and on meal plans and like in Gainesville and in Florida,” Myers said. “They didn't want to just send it to me in Colorado. I would’ve been happy with them just paying the tuition and none of the other money coming if it meant I could have stayed home and been safer.”

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Staff Writer

Thomas Weber is the health reporter for the Alligator. He is a junior journalism major at UF who has previously interned for the Gainesville Sun.