By Jane Broom, Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft

Today was a great day, as nearly 800 Washington state students learned that not only have they received the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) for the upcoming academic year, but the award has increased to a total possible award of $22,500 per student over five years (up from $17,000 in previous years).

This program provides a financial incentive for middle-and low-income students who have earned Washington state high school diplomas or GEDS to pursue science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and health care degrees at state universities and colleges.

In 2011, Microsoft and Boeing each committed $25 million to WSOS. And this year, thanks to a $25 million investment in our young people by the Washington State Legislature, the state’s contribution has grown to a total of $30 million. It adds up to a total of $80 million in funding to make it easier for young people to pursue their dreams -- students like high school senior Maria Ines Maravilla.

“Euphoria was my first reaction when I learned that I received the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship,” explains Maria. “This scholarship means a lot to me, not just financially, but also personally because this is my chance to start my first year of college on the right foot, with dreams and a smile on my face to know that I have taken a step closer to fulfilling my goals.”

 Maria Ines Maravilla

The young woman from Yakima, the first in her family to go to college, hopes to study bio-engineering, become a scientist and work on life-saving vaccines. “I want to work in my own laboratory, surrounded by microscopes, pipettes, test tubes, gowns, gloves and of course, microorganisms. I want to be a scientist and working toward cures that save lives.”

Another student who has benefitted from the WSOS program is Tae Denwongkun. Tae, who comes from a family in which neither parents were able to attend college, graduated from Shorecrest High School. A University of Washington senior, Tae is about to complete his degree in information technology with a concentration in human-computer interactions. He hopes to land a job as a technical project manager or an information architect. “This scholarship means a lot to me,” he says. “I was glad that I didn't have to find part-time jobs urgently. Instead, I was able to focus on my school work and look for a job related to my studies. It was the most joyful moment during the summer of my junior year when I learned that I had received a scholarship.”

Tae Denwongkun

Then there’s University of Washington senior Janelle Van Hofwegen. Even though her tuition was covered by the Husky Promise program, she still had to hold down a job in order to pay for her living expenses, including her dorm room. During her first years of college, she worked at sub sandwich shop, berry processing plants and later as a teaching assistant. Janelle took her first computer science class as a sophomore and was hooked right away, declaring a double major of computer science and human-centered design and engineering. “Computer science is a good blend of being challenging and creative at the same time,” she says. “One of the reasons it’s creative is that you learn that there is more than one way to solve a problem.”

Working up to 20 hours a week while attempting a degree as challenging as computer science is tough. However, when she was awarded the WSOS scholarship, Janelle says, “I was able to focus on school and less on getting so many hours, which was a huge relief.” Janelle graduates this month and has landed a job as a software developer at the video-streaming company Hulu.com.

 Janelle Van Hofwegen

Janelle is a great example – and one of many – of young people who are getting jobs in high-demand fields. Our support for WSOS is an extension of our global effort to connect young people with opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship through our YouthSpark initiative. This is especially important as we work to fill 25,000 STEM job openings in our state -- a number that is expected to double in the next five years. Closing the gap between job openings and qualified candidates would generate, according to a Boston Consulting Group/Washington Roundtable study, a total of $720 million in annual state tax revenues and $80 million in local tax revenues by 2017.

We encourage businesses of all sizes help make a difference in the lives of young people – and to help close that job skills gap – by contributing to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship at www.waopportunityscholarship.org.