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University of Memphis will not charge tuition to children, spouses of fallen service members

The university already accepts the national Folds of Honor scholarship, which undergraduate students under the age of 24 can receive if a parent was severely injured or killed while on active duty.
(Photo: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Commercial Appeal) -- Alyssa Hill was baking cookies for a Halloween party when the men in uniform came to her door.

"We knew exactly what it meant," she said. "They knock a certain way."

Her father had been killed in Iraq. She was 10 years old at the time.

Army National Guard Captain Raymond D. Hill II was 39 years old on Oct. 29, 2005, when a roadside bomb struck his Humvee. He was on a humanitarian mission in Baghdad, delivering books and toys to an orphanage.

Earlier this month, Alyssa, the youngest of her father's two daughters, graduated from the University of Memphis.

Starting this fall, the university will not charge a dime to students like her.

The university already accepts the national Folds of Honor scholarship, which undergraduate students under the age of 24 can receive if a parent was severely injured or killed while on active duty. Spouses of any age can also receive it if they have not remarried.

The $5,000-a-year scholarship helped pay for Alyssa's education.

Next year, the university will accept that scholarship as payment-in-full.

It will be the first higher education institution in the country to do so.

Folds of Honor recipients who have not yet graduated, in addition to those arriving in the future, will no longer need to worry about finding ways to pay for the rest of their education.

"For other people going forward, I think it will be a huge help and a huge relief," Alyssa said. "It will try to take some of that burden off and try to pay back some of that sacrifice."

'Relieve them of that burden'

Folds of Honor had been working for some time to find a university willing to accept the scholarship as payment-in-full, Senior Vice President Ben Leslie said. Several universities had expressed interest, but hadn't yet put in the work to make it happen.

Through a connection with Trustee David North, they found the University of Memphis.

North presented the idea to the university's board in March. It received resounding approval, although many details were, and still are, pending.

"This sacrifice is remarkable and we need to recognize that," President David Rudd told the board.

Average university tuition is about $9,700 a year, plus room and board, fees and textbooks. If the students qualify for other scholarships as well, Rudd said, the university will still assist them in seeking those dollars.

"Our commitment is to cover any gap that exists as a result and to relieve them of that burden," Rudd said.

It's a done deal, Rudd said, but he expects to sign a formal agreement with Folds of Honor in the coming weeks. This fall, no student who meets the criteria will owe any money to the university.

Rudd, who is also a veteran, said the university has been intentional about better serving military families. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission named the school a VETS Campus in 2015, one of 12 institutions in the state to be recognized for its service to student veterans.

Leslie called Memphis the "most patriotic university in the country," and said the tuition gesture would go a long way toward veterans and their families feeling welcomed on campus.

"They're attending a school that acknowledges the sacrifices a family has made to protect their freedoms," he said.

'He would have been proud'

Alyssa Hill still thinks of her father every time she smells sawdust.

Raymond Hill used to take his daughter with him to home improvement stores. She hated it then. She misses those trips now.

"He wanted me to come with him," Alyssa said. "Those memories of going to Home Depot really stick out now."

Growing up in California with her father in the Army National Guard, their lives revolved around the military, she said.

Alyssa's father had been deployed before, to Kuwait when his youngest daughter was 6.

He left for Iraq when she was 9. They emailed nearly every day, and over the summer, he took a leave and surprised his daughters at camp.

"Somebody came and got us and told us that someone from our family wanted to see (us)," Alyssa said.

Her father emerged from behind a theater stage, enveloping his girls with the rest of their family watching.

That fall, he became one of the fallen.

"It was obviously devastating but not surprising, because being in a military family, you always have to be on guard or ready for that to happen," Alyssa said.

So instead of going to a Halloween party, 10-year-old Alyssa began cleaning her house. Because she knew they would soon have guests.

"I've always kind of been like this. I've picked up when there's been no stability," she said.

Alyssa and her mother and sister moved around the country a few times after that, settling in Iowa for high school. Alyssa started college there, eventually ending up at the University of Memphis.

She qualified for the GI Bill to pay part of her tuition, but being out-of-state, she had a gap to cover. Folds of Honor paid the difference, and left her with enough money for books.

She was one of five students last year to be enrolled at the school with the Folds of Honor scholarship, and one of 173 enrolled at 30 different institutions across the state.

After three years in Memphis, Alyssa graduated with a degree in hospitality and resort management and already has a job as a travel agent. On the day she received her diploma, she thought of her dad.

"I know he would have been proud," she said.

Reach Jennifer Pignolet at jennifer.pignolet@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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