Phi Theta Kappa alumna Sara Oswald received the email on April 1, 2011. She was convinced it was an April Fools’ Day prank, but it wasn’t. An admissions advisor from Harvard University’s Extension School had in fact emailed her and was urging her to transfer there.
There was even a scholarship available for someone like her – a full ride. All she had to do was apply.
“I didn’t realize you could transfer from a technical college to an Ivy League school like Harvard,” she said. “That’s not why I signed up for Phi Theta Kappa, but it certainly didn’t hurt!
“Now, people know the possibility is there.”
She applied for and received the full scholarship to Harvard, which allowed her to complete her entire undergraduate education for less than $2,000. She graduated from Harvard in May 2014 and is now pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia College in South Carolina.
“Everything I’ve done in education keeps coming back to Phi Theta Kappa,” she said. “It keeps coming back to when I joined.”
Oswald is a “seventh-generation South Carolinian” who still lives on the same piece of land as those in the first generation. She comes from a “family who worked with their hands all their lives,” and she’s the first in her family to graduate from college.
Her high school years were somewhat lackluster. She didn’t enjoy it because there was no real challenge there, and she graduated in 1998 with a class of about a thousand.
“My high school counselor didn’t even talk to me about college,” she said. “That just wasn’t even on my radar. I guess I got lost in the shuffle.”
Ten years passed before Oswald enrolled at Midlands Technical College (MTC) in Columbia, South Carolina. It was 2008, and she found herself responding well to college courses. Her only goal was to graduate; there was no career goal in sight. Soon, she received her Phi Theta Kappa membership invitation from the Alpha Eta Kappa Chapter.
“Never in my life did I think an honor society of any sort would be interested in me,” Oswald said. “I went to the website and did some research on it. Everything about it and four hallmarks spoke to me.”
Oswald became the first member in her chapter to reach Five Star Competitive Edge status. She was also the first chapter president to lead the chapter to Five Star status in the Five Star Chapter Plan, and she took the leadership class at MTC, which uses curriculum based on Phi Theta Kappa’s Leadership Development Studies program. She was also named to the 2011 All-South Carolina Community College Academic Team.
“I tried to do everything I could,” she said. “It all adds up. These are things that will continue to be important in your life. These programs are there to help you, but you have to help yourself first and actually participate in them.”
Oswald was also able to utilize CollegeFish.org, Phi Theta Kappa’s innovative website that helps students complete their associate degree and transfer to the four-year college of their choice. The site was founded in 2011, and Oswald was among its first users to reap its benefits.
“It’s such an easy website to use,” she said. “There are so many chances, so many opportunities to transfer.
“For me, just like a lot of other members, I got a lot out of it. I also put a lot into it. But the rewards were definitely greater than the time I put into it.”
Jennifer Blalock, Phi Theta Kappa’s Chief Student Support Officer who oversees CollegeFish.org, said stories like Oswald’s prove that students who do the research and take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them through Society programs and initiatives will yield big results.
“This is where it all begins,” she said. “With more than $37 million in transfer scholarships available for two-year college students through CollegeFish.org to more than 700 four-year schools, achieving an undergraduate degree is more accessible than ever before. You just have to put in the effort.”
Oswald is now an active member of the Carolinas Region alumni chapter. She received Phi Theta Kappa’s 2012 Alumni Award of Appreciation, and she continues to work with her former chapter through attending induction ceremonies and volunteering for C4 events.
“She has been the keynote speaker at several induction ceremonies since her graduation, where she focuses on the benefits of Phi Theta Kappa, specifically the scholarships as she challenges students to dream and work to achieve their dreams,” said Kitty Spires, advisor to the Alpha Eta Kappa Chapter. “She brings to completion the slogan that is located on all of our campuses – You can get anywhere from here.’
“Sara embraces, and is the epitome of, the hallmarks of scholarships, leadership, service and fellowship. She continues to reach out to new members, as she understands the importance that Phi Theta Kappa has had in her life.”
Oswald is seeking a graduate degree in higher education so she can work with students on the two-year college level and help them find the opportunities to realize and fulfill their dreams. For her, chief among the ways to do that is to get involved with Phi Theta Kappa.
“Phi Theta Kappa exists to help people,” she said. “I have a sense of self-confidence that I didn’t have before. It’s been a totally transformative experience.
“People need to go ahead and really make a point to get involved. No one’s going to hand it to you. You have to do it.”