Veronica and Mary Urbina grew up in Minneapolis, went to Washburn High School and chose St. Thomas over other colleges because of its academic programs and superior financial aid packages that included scholarships, loans and state grants.

Without those packages, the Urbina twins doubt they would be preparing for their senior years as marketing majors at St. Thomas. They come from a modest upbringing and their parents simply didn’t make enough money to put them and their two older brothers through college.

“Even so, I never doubted that I’d go to school,” said Veronica, born in the United States after her parents emigrated from Mexico. “It was mostly a matter of where. I just figured I’d find a way to pay for it. It’s scary. But it’s worth it.”

Mary used the same word – “scary” – to describe the prospects of paying back more than $10,000 in loans after she graduates next May. She, too, has found the experience worthwhile, “and besides, I just can’t imagine where I’d be if not in college.”

The Urbinas are like hundreds of other students who go to extraordinary lengths to pay for a college education. Veronica and Mary also put in up to 20 hours a week during the school year at Marshall Field’s in downtown Minneapolis, and are working there again this summer.

They joined forces last spring with other college students in writing to legislators about the importance of the Minnesota State Grant Program, which provided $4.7 million in need-based aid to 1,300 St. Thomas students, or an average of $3,630. Many students and parents – the Urbinas included – say the grants were the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

This year, their letters were even more relevant because the Legislature had to resolve a $4.2 billion budget shortfall. St. Thomas has lobbied for funding increases to keep pace with inflation during most budget-setting sessions, but our goal this year simply was to prevent reductions that would cripple the program’s effectiveness.

St. Thomas grant recipients and their parents wrote more than 375 letters. They applauded the wise investment the state makes in helping students from low- and middle-income families attend college so they can find good jobs. They articulated why private college students are just as entitled to grants as public college students. And most importantly, they told inspirational stories about the sacrifices they make to attend St. Thomas.

A sophomore majoring in theology and secondary education and aspiring to become a teacher wrote about financial problems since her dad had a heart attack and stroke when she was 12. “I work two jobs and apply for as many private scholarships as I can find while tending to my classes and homework,” she said. “And still, without the assistance of the government I would not be here.”

A freshman interested in business and economics worked 70-hour weeks last summer and still took out $10,000 in loans. “I have been saving up for a long time,” she said, “because it was clear to me when I was young that I would be paying for my education by myself. And I do.”

Several students from single-parent families wrote about the impact of a slower economy. One student’s mom lost her job after 32 years with the same employer. The dad of a second student died of cancer, and her mom also supports three other college- or high school-age children. A third student became pregnant and had a baby but remained in school. “It has been a long, strenuous year,” she said, “but I am so proud of myself. My family and friends have been more than supportive in keeping me sane and in school, and my daughter is one more good reason to stick with my goals and finish school.”

Parents also wrote powerful letters. A 1968 St. Thomas alumnus is proud that two of his children have college degrees and the other two are pursuing them.

“Our children are already making a difference in the quality of life for Minnesota,” he wrote. “I want you to know that this program does indeed ‘pay back’ the state and society in many ways, such as by employment and careers that serve the common good, and by living a code of ethics that is shaped largely by their education.”

Legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty must have taken to heart words such as those. They agreed to provide an additional $40 million in State Grant Program funding for the next two years. Analysts believe the program will be close to fully funded.

Let’s hope it’s fully funded so students like Veronica and Mary Urbina will be able to live out their dreams and march into the future, as “scary” as it may be.