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May 29, 2009
By Jon Fortenbury
Hala Armstrong, 23, went from being known as the “poor kid” at her high school and having financial hardships delay her college education to receiving the financial aid she needed in pursuing and ultimately earning her bachelor’s degree.
She graduated on May 16 from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor’s degree in information systems and a minor in journalism.
Growing up in Pacific Grove, Calif., Armstrong went to a prestigious high school in a wealthy area. Her mom retired young so she could always be there for her. Living with her uncle, Armstrong and her mom only had her uncle’s income supporting them. Still, they didn’t move because her family wanted to make sure she got the best education she could.
“It was a sacrifice to live there,” Armstrong said.
Not as well off financially as some of the kids at her high school, Armstrong was on the reduced lunch plan. To avoid being made fun of, she would deny to others being on the plan.
“I used to tell people it wasn’t the free lunch plan,” she said. “I’d say it’s just in case I forgot my lunch at home.”
Before she applied to any colleges, Armstrong took a tour of the University of Nevada, Reno campus and fell in love with it. She didn’t apply to any other schools.
However, financial aid problems delayed Armstrong from coming to the University. A year after graduating high school, she received a brochure in the mail from the TRiO Scholars program, a program geared towards assisting first-generation and low-income students. With the financial help from TRiO Scholars, she enrolled at the University in summer 2004.
Aside from providing Armstrong with grants and helping her get other financial aid, the TRiO Scholars program provided her with tutoring and helped her set academic goals.
“TRiO helped provide me services to navigate the system,” she said. “That’s what I love about them.”
During her time in the program, Armstrong discovered that she could study abroad.
“I had so much financial hardships getting into college that it was beyond me that I could study abroad,” Armstrong said.
During the 2006 and 2007 school year, however, she studied abroad in Scotland. After this experience, Armstrong wanted others to know what a wonderful opportunity studying abroad is. This motivated her to work two summers as an R.A. for the Upward Bound program.
“I wanted high school students in similar situations as I was to see that not only was college possible but you can study abroad too,” Armstrong said.
While at the University, Armstrong achieved many things. For maintaining good grades, she became a Platinum Level TRiO Scholar. She finished college with a 3.3 GPA. Due to her success in school amidst all her challenges, she was asked to speak at the TRiO Graduation Ceremony in April.
Armstrong was also a member of Student Ambassadors, the Student Orientation Staff (SOS) and the Business Student Council. Since January, Armstrong has been doing an internship at Microsoft. It ends in July. She has loved it so far.
“I never dreamed I’d get that,” she said.
She hopes to stay in the technology field and would love to do a career with Microsoft or Google. She also thinks it would be incredible to move to Seattle one day.
Rita Escher, who works in the TRiO program and is the director of academic and opportunity support programs, thinks Armstrong has done exceptionally well in college while still balancing work.
“She has developed strong leadership skills and carries herself with far more optimism and confidence since she started college,” Escher said.