Virginia Brightwell

The Hazel May St. Clair Memorial Scholarship

Virginia Brightwell

MCC alum Virginia Brightwell wanted to establish a scholarship in honor of her mother, Hazel May St. Clair.

St. Clair was a brilliant student who went to high school in Chicago in the 1930s but was denied a scholarship because she was a woman.

“My mom could do any math problem in her head almost instantly. She was good at every other subject too,” said Brightwell. “The administrators at her school used to pull her out of class and put her on the stage at her high school to have her show off for visiting dignitaries that came to town. But when the time came for her to continue her education after high school, she was denied a scholarship. She was told that giving a scholarship to a woman would be a waste—that women only went to college to find a husband.”

The news absolutely devastated her mother, Brightwell said. St. Clair was unable to continue her schooling and never made more than minimum wage her entire life.

“Unfortunately what happened to my mom skewed my view of academia as well,” she said. “I didn’t respect school or my teachers. I had a love of reading and learning but didn’t have any use for the institution of school. So, when I was a freshman in high school, I quit.”

Brightwell initially had no problem getting a job and held the same job for many years. But later on, things drastically changed in her life—and she realized she needed to get her GED.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “But MCC was so helpful. They walked me through what I needed to do to come back and introduced me to the availability of scholarships.”  

Virginia originally returned to MCC in 1995 to get her GED, then continued on to earn her Associate of Science in 1998. She finished at MCC as the valedictorian of her class. 

“Speech class stands out from my time at MCC,” she said. “Even though it was incredibly frightening to stand up in front of a bunch of teenagers and talk, I still recall it fondly. I loved the chemistry classes, and my algebra class was great fun. But of all of them, I think I enjoyed my history class the most. I have always loved history, and my teacher just made it that much better. What he brought to the class I could never have gotten from a book. I couldn’t wait to get to his class each day.”

Brightwell continued on to St. Anthony’s School of Nursing in Rockford, where she received her Bachelor’s in Nursing and graduated at the top of her class. She ended up receiving more than 20 scholarships during her combined four years of school.

“I encourage students to apply for every single scholarship they can find,” she said. “Look in the local papers, look in the free flyers, look everywhere. Ask the college for a list of every scholarship ever used at the school. Write to all of them. I received over twenty scholarships because I wasn’t afraid to try. It doesn’t matter if it has nothing to do with your field of study—most groups just want to help others succeed. I received scholarships from quilting societies (I don’t quilt), from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (I was never in the service), from the Daughters of the American Revolution (I’m not in that society), etc. Be creative. I applied for one in another county that was just open to residents of that county—but my response to that was that I told them I may end up working in their county one day (I got the scholarship). But the most important thing is to speak from the heart in all of your applications. People want to hear your personal story—they want to be moved. Honesty and sincerity go a long way.”

After graduation, Brightwell spent many years working as a nurse.

“I loved working, I loved nursing—it was the best part of my life,” she said. “Going to school gave me self-confidence that I never had before. I felt stronger and more independent than I ever had before. I believe a good education can help you feel equal to anyone.”

Brightwell would tell anyone considering returning to school to just go for it.

“It is very intimidating, but so very worth it. The teachers at MCC are very helpful and really want you to succeed. Seek out the guidance counselors and listen to their suggestions—they helped me enormously. I took a class that the counselor recommended on ‘How to Study’ and it was enormously helpful. It took some of the fear out of going to class.”

Behind Brightwell’s continued motivation and success is the inspiration of her mother, who—despite facing the obstacles she did when it came to formal education—instilled a love of reading and learning in Virginia.

“It’s important to me to give back because I was helped by so many scholarships,” she said. “And I don’t want what happened to my mom to happen to anyone else.”

The Hazel May St. Clair scholarship is available to students who are over 30 years in age, have a minimum 2.0 GPA, and demonstrate financial need. The award can be applied to tuition, books, and fees.

To view all of MCC’s available scholarships, visit