CHESAPEAKE, Va. — When Lorraine SantaLucia graduated from Landstown High School in 2010, her parents and grandparents broke the bad news.
They'd support her any way they could but wouldn't be able to pay anything for her to go to college.
The Virginia Beach native went anyway, vowing to cobble together the money. After being admitted to her "dream school" — Hollins University in Roanoke — she tapped every source she could think of to cover the cost: cash from the GI Bill because her stepfather had been in the Navy; scholarships from the university itself; Even money she had saved up from high school baby-sitting.
By the end of her freshman year, though, the funds were running out, and she faced a choice: Take out loans to stay at the $40,000-a-year private school she loved, or switch to a state college that would cost much less for a Virginia resident.
She transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, a move she described as "really crushing at the time."
Although the change lowered her costs, SantaLucia needed to find other ways to save. She took a heavy load of 18 credits every semester. She got used textbooks or borrowed them from professors and other students so she could scan them. She signed up for a smaller meal plan and supplemented it by cooking at home.
But that was just one side of the equation. Bringing in more money was the other. She worked part time as a hostess and social media manager for a Mexican restaurant during the school year and made sure her summer internships paid.
And she began applying for scholarships. Lots of them.
"I remember struggling to figure out where the money was coming from," she said. "I remember the pressure on my parents. I remember my mom and grandma asking, 'What if she doesn't get that $1,000 scholarship she applied to?' I remember wondering if I would finish graduation."
SantaLucia said that in addition to attending classes, doing homework and working part time, she spent more than 30 hours a week on scholarship applications. She boned up on the organizations doling out the money to make sure her essays jibed with their missions. She researched people honored with memorial scholarships and mentioned them in the applications along with what they stood for.
"It was really another full-time job," she said.
But it got easier, she discovered. First, a lot of the applications required the same sorts of answers, so she was rarely starting from scratch. Second, she began to realize that winning scholarships led to winning more because people seemed to think a student who'd already won something was worthy of a hard look.
"There's this domino effect," she said.
In the end, she bagged more than $65,000 in scholarships and grants, and she graduated from VCU last year with a degree in mass communications and a post baccalaureate in nonprofit management.
Now, at age 23, SantaLucia is making a career out of teaching others to do the same. She founded a nonprofit while at VCU called Scholarship Sharing.
The woman, who once used "scholarshipping" as a verb to describe how she would knock out 10 to 20 applications in one sitting, hopes to make it easier for others to follow in her footsteps.
College students need SantaLucia's skills now more than ever. This year's graduating class and their families are saddled with the most debt in history — $70 billion, which is seven times more than in the early '90s, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis.
More than 70 percent of students have outstanding loans when they get their diplomas, up from around 45 percent in 1993, the newspaper found. The average graduate is saddled with $35,000 in debt, three-and-a-half times more than 20 years ago.
SantaLucia's message to students facing these realities: Don't be bashful or afraid of rejection. You're going to get rejected. A lot. But keep at it. "There's thousands of people applying, and you're just another one of those numbers," she said.
After SantaLucia transferred from Hollins to VCU on the fly without taking out loans, fellow students who were impressed started asking for advice. Friends and family members wanted help for their kids. So in the summer of 2012, she started a Facebook group to share what she'd learned, and within a week more than 300 people had joined.
Many thought she was affiliated with VCU because she knew more than any university employees they'd talked to, SantaLucia said.
"That was when the light bulb went on," she said, "It was a really shocking revelation the school didn't already have something like that."
The Facebook group turned into a student organization, which led to workshops, webinars and a website. Then she got the idea to model her effort after job, career and college fairs. Why not a scholarship fair?
In 2013, she brought 30 organizations together on the VCU campus to tell students about the money they were giving away and how to get it. Nearly 850 of them showed up, including those from other colleges and high-schoolers. The next year, the numbers swelled to 60 organizations and 1,500 people.
"I don't want to keep it to myself," she said. "I want to help people be more empowered."
Giancarla Rojas offers herself up as Exhibit A.
The 21-year-old senior majoring in international economics at Radford University took note after her mentor told her he'd met SantaLucia. He thought they'd hit it off and suggested Rojas reach out.
Rojas pored over Scholarship Sharing's website, took a webinar and eventually met SantaLucia in person. On SantaLucia's advice, Rojas tweaked her applications and started winning more scholarships.
One from Radford covered half of her $10,000-a-year tuition, but the rest was up to her, Rojas said. She said she has applied for more than 50 scholarships and received more than $35,000.
Last month, Rojas, who said she was "very inspired by Lorraine's work to help other students," joined Scholarship Sharing as its vice president.
She said she plans to graduate this year.