Image: Alexa Sieracki, Class of 2009. Elkhart, Indiana. May 2009
Carissa Ray  /  msnbc.com
Alexa Sieracki outside of her family home in Elkhart.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/1/2009 6:05:05 PM ET 2009-09-01T22:05:05

For months, a hand-lettered poster in Alexa Sieracki’s room had announced the Elkhart, Ind., girl’s intentions:

“Watch out, California,” it said. “Here comes Alexa.”

But until this moment at her family’s computer, the 17-year-old didn’t know if she’d be going to the University of Southern California at all.

It wasn’t her aptitude or her ability. With a 4.55 grade-point-average and SAT scores of 2060, Sieracki had been invited – more than once – to skip her senior year of high school and attend the prestigious Resident Honors College at the Los Angeles university. There, Sieracki could pursue her dream of becoming a volcanologist.

She threw the first two invitations away, but finally mailed in the third – and was accepted. Now, the only thing that stood between Sieracki and USC was the $51,000 annual tuition.

The cost was simply beyond the resources of Tim Sieracki, a 53-year-old letter carrier, and his wife, Kris, 56, a natural health consultant and herbalist who now works part-time for a local public radio station.

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Like growing numbers of families in Elkhart and across the country, the Sierackis have had to adjust their children’s educational plans in the face of a lingering economic downturn.

Neither Tim nor Kris attended college, but they wanted to make sure their daughters did. So when Natasha, 21, wanted to study architecture at Ball State University, her parents said fine, but she’d have to pay half.

They intended to strike the same deal with Alexa, a star student and athlete at Elkhart Memorial High School, a girl who had dreamed of attending a big-name school like Stanford or USC since she was 14 – and had the grades and the gumption to do it.

But how to foot the bills?
But with Tim’s hours reduced by  steep budget cuts at the U.S. Postal Service and unexpected medical bills from Kris’ bout with breast cancer, Alexa’s parents found themselves barely able to keep up their end of the deal. They didn’t want to borrow against their retirement, even for their girls’ schooling, and they didn’t want Alexa to take out more than $10,000 a year in loans.

So if Alexa was going to make it to USC, the financial aid package would have to cover almost all the cost.

“If it doesn’t fall into that reasonable category, I can’t go,” Alexa Sieracki said. “If not, I’ll stay back here.”

But then she logged onto the USC site one Friday in April. Her old Dell computer was slow, and the seconds stretched unbearably.

Finally the file opened. And Alexa squealed.

“Oh my god,” she said, burying her head in her hands.

She’d been granted $37,000 annually for four years to pay for school. Another scholarship will add an extra $4,000 a year. She’ll have to work, and she’ll have to take out small student loans, but if her parents can come up with the final $4,618 for her freshman year, Alexa is on her way.

“Do you think we can do that?” Kris Sieracki asked her husband. But the answer was obvious.

In mid-August, Alexa will join 30 students from around the world in a dormitory at USC. Allison DeRaad, a program adviser for the honors program said Alexa likely would do very well.

“She’s excited to learn, she’s excited to take college-level courses,” said DeRaad, who added that Alexa will be one of the few students who are among the first in their families to attend college. “We like that she’s a first-generation student.”

For her part, Alexa said she’s lucky to have had the strong and stable upbringing that her parents, who were both raised in the Elkhart area, have provided.

She’s lived for years in the family’s modest brick house with white trim and an ivy bed out front. She’s grown up with the same posse of girlfriends all the way through school. And she’s had the support of parents who valued higher education, even if they didn’t take that route themselves.

“It was never a question of ‘How?’ It was a question of ‘You are going,’” said Kris Sieracki, who added. “We’ve always known she was very tuned in and very bright.”

‘So much intellectual passion’
Alexa had a taste of big-time academia last year, when she was chosen for a summer program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.  The girl who asked for an $80 chemistry book for her 16th birthday loved it.

“It was having so much intellectual passion in one room,” she said. “It sounds so dorky to say that.”

In just a few weeks, Alexa will have a chance to experience that passion full-time. It will take some adjusting, of course, to make the switch from Elkhart to L.A. When she and her mother visited the USC campus earlier this spring, they wound up getting their rental car towed because they parked in the wrong place.

Alexa laughed off the incident, figuring it’s just one step in her new adventure.

Like the poster said: “Watch out, California. Here comes Alexa.”

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