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Social Work Major Receives $30,000 Scholarship from PG&E

Larry Peña, May 31, 2012
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When PUC social work major Erica McCray went in to the PG&E office in Napa, Calif., on May 30, she thought she was interviewing for a chance at the company’s Bright Minds Scholarship. She was in for a surprise—PG&E had already selected her from a pool of 8,000 as one of ten statewide recipients of the $30,000 scholarship, renewable for four years of education.

“When I walked in, there were balloons, cake, and a giant check with my name on it!” says McCray, emotion still ringing in her voice a day after the surprise award ceremony. “I just started praising the Lord…It blows my mind, and I still can’t stop smiling.”

To McCray, the moment seems to be a turning point after many difficult years. When her husband abruptly left her six years ago, he took everything but their three children. McCray suddenly found herself without a partner, a significant income, or even access to what had been their joint bank account.

Despite the sudden, unexpected hardships, McCray never stopped trusting God to sustain her through the most difficult times. “I had just been walking on faith,” she says. “I thought that the lessons I had to learn were how to endure, to be longsuffering, and to live with dignity, no matter what.”

Before her divorce, she had worked as a childcare provider and would often go out of her way to help single working mothers gain access to necessary family services like food and health care. Now on the other side of that equation, she found herself working with social service workers who helped her provide for her own family. “I discovered that the thing I already loved to do was something I could actually do for a living.” That discovery in turn led her to the realization that she needed to return to school.

Living temporarily with her parents in American Canyon, Calif., at the southern tip of the Napa Valley, she began seeking out social work training programs that could eventually lead her to a Ph.D. From her first visit to PUC, she “felt it was the right place.” Despite the price tag of a private college, she felt it was time to prioritize her education for the sake of her family’s future. They moved to Angwin and she enrolled in PUC’s social work program, taking out loans to pay for her first year of tuition.

Meanwhile, friends at her home church encouraged her to apply for PG&E’s new Bright Minds Scholarship. The program awards renewable funding to students who show a desire to lead in their communities, a drive to overcome significant challenges, outstanding academic achievement, and financial need. Although she seemed to fit all the criteria, she was reluctant to devote hours to filling out the lengthy application, having her hands full already just getting a handle on the return to school. “I thought, why even bother? What are the chances?”

But she made the effort anyway. For months, she heard nothing from PG&E and had all but given up hope when she received a call late in May informing her that she was a finalist. “When I found out there was an interview, I felt a lot better,” she says. “I’ve always been good at connecting with people face to face, and I thought my chances were better.”

The night before what she thought would be her interview, she laid out a very simple strategy. “I wanted to try to show them that I would represent them well, because I try to live my life in a way that represents the Lord,” she says. “I didn’t know what they would ask me, but I just said, ‘Lord, give me the words to say.’”

It turned out that God had the situation even more under control than she had known. Walking into the interview room, she discovered her mother, her cousins, representatives from PG&E, and members of PUC’s social work faculty waiting in front of an enormous banner that read “Congratulations Erica!”

The scholarship will provide McCray with a full ride at PUC, eliminating the need to take out any further loans and giving her family a better chance to get ahead financially once she’s done with school and back in the workforce. “God has just been so faithful to me,” she says. “I am so grateful…Now that this has happened, I keep wondering what else is in store for me.”