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DEI Chats: Scholarships and Equitable Access to Education Opportunities

Posted: December 29, 2021

Each month, SAE International is having honest conversations with our members, volunteers, and employees about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of mobility. We reflect with our partners on how their identity has shaped their experience in the field and how we can work toward a more equitable and inclusive future.

This month, we sat down with SAE’s  Nicol Lachimia, Awards, Scholarships, and Events Associate, to talk about equitable access to education, and how SAE is fostering opportunity for students from or seeking to support low-income communities.


A campaign promise of many a politician—including our sitting president—is one to wipe out or forgive some student loan debt, the source of a crisis that is affecting young professionals and students across the nation, particularly those of the Millennial and Gen Z generations.

This type of debt is on the rise and has increased by an astounding 144% since 2007, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.  That’s nearly $1.7 trillion in student debt in America today that’s drowning those from middle- and low- income backgrounds once they get out of school due to high loan amounts and predatory inflated interest rates. And even if you could put loan debt aside, tuition costs have always served as a gatekeeper around higher education, preventing many from lower income communities from getting an education.  

How do we begin to address this issue? While there are many complicated pieces to consider, opportunities to limit debt begin with financial support that students don’t have to pay back. That means increasing access to grants and scholarships and connecting students with these funding sources. SAE has a lot of experience with the latter.

In 2021, SAE awarded 17 scholarships, distributing a total award amount of $282,000 to 52 students headed for or already enrolled in collegiate undergraduate and post-graduate programs. While SAE has been in the scholarship game for many years, there’s been a phenomenon occurring highlighting a greater need for funds for today’s students.

“Our application numbers have skyrocketed in the past 5 years,” said Nicol Lachimia, Awards, Scholarship and Events Associate with the SAE Foundation. “We have been averaging 3,000-5,000 applicants while just a few years ago we were receiving 500-700.”

With such a spike in interest but a finite number of resources, the scholarship team saw the opportunity to promote good in the world, tweaking one $10,000 award to promote an entrepreneurial spirit in support of community enrichment. The SAE Heinz C. Prechter Automotive Excellence Scholarship exists to encourage and support young entrepreneurs pursuing a degree in engineering and is presented to students with a service idea or initiative in the early stages of implementation or one that has already been implemented.

Lachimia shared that some previous student winners of the Prechter scholarship have come from low-income communities and others are first generation college students.

Past winners of the Prechter scholarship include a student who developed an organization providing free interdisciplinary STEM education to more than 2,500 minority youth across 7 different countries; the founder of an equitable education non-profit organization that provides free tutoring and mentorship to underrepresented and underserved communities; a developer of a responsive virtual reality application designed to improve the quality of life for seniors with dementia and countless others.

In 2021, eight student recipients received funding toward their development. The 2021 award recipients and their projects are:

  • Erika Abumere: Founder of We Code Too USA which is a platform that exists to bridge the racial gap in the computing industry by providing minority students interested in computer science with community, educational and finances resources.
  • Molly Cantillon: Founder & CEO of Techshare Project, a 501(c)3 student-led non-profit devoted to empowering underprivileged children in the world of technology such as robotics, circuitry, coding to spark kids’ interests in STEM. Plus, Co-Founder of GirlTechBoss a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to empower girls in technology and entrepreneurship.
  • Liana Chen: Director of IT for Generation Science, a student-led nonprofit organization aiming to promote scientific literacy, working with students from seven countries to reach 30,000+ people on social media.
  • Paul-Elliot Foy: Developer of GWSL, an open source website with a substantial programming project for those developers and engineers using WSL2, a feature in Windows that makes it possible to run non-graphical Linux programs on Windows with approximately 15,000 unique installs. GWSL occupies the Microsoft Store’s top-15 free developer tools list.
  • Ashna Patel: Cofounder and Executive Director of STEM & Buds, a by-youth, for-youth 501(c)3 organization empowering students to bridge STEM and storytelling through close-peer research mentorship and social impact project creation.
  • Marek Pinto: Founder of Print2Protect (a 501c3 registered non-profit) that 3D-prints and donates face shields to medical workers.
  • Jack Tian: Founder of Aerovate, a non-profited designed to provide a play-based learning community to bridge this opportunity gap empowering children of all ages, races, and genders in the fields of STEAM through engaging competitions.
  • Ally Willis: Designing heated pants with resistance wiring and a power source being used to create wearable heat for the user.

“What these students are doing blows me away,” Lachimia said. “The good they are doing in the world is phenomenal, and we’re proud to be a small part of that.”

Learn more about SAE scholarships at