BRADENTON -- Ashley Eickelmann is a "gap" student.
She's from a middle-class family and works 30 hours a week at Kiddie Academy, on weekends at a furniture store and is an avid babysitter.
Yet Eickelmann does not qualify for financial aid although the 20-year-old struggles to pay for tuition, fees and books at the State College of Florida in her second year of studying for a career in pediatric nursing.
That's where the State College of Florida Foundation comes in.
As a recipient of the Keith E. Tucker Scholarship, Eickelmann said a huge weight has been lifted and she can focus on taking classes full-time without worrying about money, she said Wednesday during the annual State College of Florida Foundation luncheon at the Renaissance on 9th.
"I'd only be able to do about half of what I do now without this scholarship," she said.
"It's hugely beneficial."
This year, the foundation awarded $700,000 to 538 students -- a 14 percent increase from last year. More than 300 people, including students, beneficiaries and college officials, attended the lunch. Students and beneficiaries were seated together so they could make a personal connection, said Cassandra Holmes, foundation executive director.
"It really connects them to the college and the type of student they're helping," said Holmes, who has headed the foundation for six months. Holmes has worked in philanthropy for 10 years, she said.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Chris Stough addressed the crowd after he received the Helena Ruth Hall Scholarship. He is on track to complete a bachelor's degree in homeland security and said he plans to pursue a master's degree.
The 47-year-old Stough is a single father raising a 10-year-old daughter, Gabriella, which he jokingly called "insanity."
"SCF has been a new beginning for me and my daughter," Stough said.
The scholarship allows Stough to focus on academics, he said, and encourages him to pay it forward in the future. Stough is involved in foundation fundraising to create a scholarship fund for veterans to help bridge the gap in VA benefit payments. The fund is just $5,000 away from full endowment, Stough said.
The lunch featured students in the SCF music department performing a piece from their upcoming musical "West Side Story."
Chris Pfahler, from the State College of Florida Foundation, began the event by thanking beneficiaries for attending, reminding them it takes one person to make a significant difference in a person's life.
"Together, we are changing the world," Pfahler said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.