EUGENE, Ore. -- When Margaret Innocenti was in eighth grade nearly 40 years ago, her father told her she'd make a good engineer. The idea always stuck in the back of her mind, but she never pursued it.
Instead, Innocenti worked briefly in public relations, moved from Arizona to Eugene 25 years ago, started a family and worked at her husband's tax business.
But when her husband's rare form of lymphoma reignited three years ago, he spent much of his time in hospital beds and at home. The tax business took a toll, Innocenti said, and she needed to do something.
So, the 54-year-old went back to school.
"I have 100 percent in my math class right now," Innocenti said of her Math 65 class at Lane Community College, where she has been enrolled in classes since September.
"Oh, actually," she said, correcting herself, "I have 103 percent."
Thanks to a scholarship she received last month, Innocenti plans to transfer to a university next fall with most of her college costs paid. Her ideal job would combine engineering and computer science to make buildings and computers more accessible to the disabled. Her interest in helping the disabled stems from her experience caring for her 24-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at age 5.
Innocenti is among 46 students across Oregon and Northern California this year to receive a Ford ReStart scholarship from the Ford Family Foundation Scholarship Program. Since 2001, the program has helped more than 450 adults pursuing degrees from a two-year or four-year college. Students at LCC are typically awarded about $14,000 per academic year, depending on their financial situation, said Tricia Tate, the Ford Family scholarship program manager.
The Ford ReStart program is among four programs established in 1957 by Kenneth Ford, who founded Roseburg Forest Products Co. in the 1930s. Ford created the scholarship programs to help disadvantaged students go to college.
While other Ford programs focus on graduating high school seniors, the ReStart program is distinctive in giving "nontraditional" -- that means older -- students an opportunity to reinvent themselves through a return to education. Most face obstacles that would otherwise make returning to school financially difficult or impossible.
The ReStart recipients, who include 16 from LCC and another from Northwest Christian University, were recognized Saturday at a banquet in Eugene.
The ReStart scholarships pay for about 90 percent of college costs that are not already paid for through additional scholarships or grants.
"The idea is to replace loans," Tate said. "It's amazing what a difference it makes, especially for some people who haven't been in school for a while and never thought they could go back."
With her Ford ReStart scholarship, 36-year-old Lori Hawley of Eugene hopes to transfer to the University of Oregon from LCC to become a sound engineer. Hawley, who has a 12-year-old son, has volunteered for several years in the music industry as a stage manager and decided she wanted to make money working in the music business. She hopes to work at a recording studio in Eugene.
Her $9,000 a year earnings would not have allowed her to go to a university without thousands of dollars in student debt, Hawley said.
Both Hawley and Innocenti want a higher-paying job doing something that interests them.
Innocenti said she's always enjoyed solving problems and helping people. With a degree, she hopes to help the disabled have better access to more technology and buildings, such as making sure every building has a safe fire escape suitable for disabled people or making cellphones more useful to the hearing-impaired.
"I want to use my talents," she said. "I don't feel like the tax business was really doing that for me."
The tax job also doesn't pay enough to cover the bills, she said.
Activity for daughter
Innocenti said she pays at least $3,000 in medical costs per month, which includes caring for her daughter, Laura Mathans, who she said has the joints of an 80-year-old and can't walk.
Innocenti takes her daughter to LCC with her so that she can spend time in public. Mathans said she stays mainly in the LCC cafeteria and packs a tote bag full of books and sketch pads to keep herself busy while her mother is in class in the morning.
"I like listening to the chatter," Mathans said. "Being around people is one of the most important things for me now."
Innocenti said Mathans helps her with homework. "I'll read my papers to her and get her opinion," Innocenti said.
With her math and writing, Innocenti also takes classes in LCC's Women in Transition program, which teaches basic life and study skills to single mothers or women who experienced a traumatic event.
After her husband's cancer reappeared and her mother died two years ago, Innocenti said, she struggled with depression and lacked self-confidence. Now that she's taking classes in the program, she said, she's been able to better cope with her anxiety.
"I started believing in my abilities," she said. "I didn't realize that I loved school and that I had abilities."
Innocenti has earned 32 credits at LCC. So far, she has straight A's. "I've even gotten a few A+'s," she said, laughing and quickly covering her smile with her hands.
Her math teacher this term, Charlotte Behm, also believes in her abilities. "She wants me to be an engineer," Innocenti said.