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SEMA’s Loan Forgiveness Program Provides a Pathway to Student Debt Relief

By Ellen McKoy

Imagine this: Three students who borrowed heavily to finance their college education, and are now deep in debt, concoct a scheme to expose a seedy lender and make a few bucks in the process. Thankfully, this far-fetched plot is merely the invention of best-selling author John Grisham, as told in his legal thriller, “The Rooster Bar.”

While Grisham’s tale is pure fiction, real-world student loan debt is a big deal for more than 40 million borrowers—about 70% of college students. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel, student debt has hit a record-setting $1.52 trillion. And while millions of college grads struggle to repay their loans, for those pursuing a career in the automotive industry, there’s a pathway to help them leave their worries behind.

That pathway is the SEMA Loan Forgiveness program. Established in the early 2000s under the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund, the program is aimed at helping graduates employed by a SEMA-member company pay off their student loans.

Loan forgiveness awards are presented annually to qualified candidates. Beyond employment at a member company, applicants must hold a degree or certificate from an accredited college, university or technical school, have a minimum 2.5 GPA and, perhaps most important, a demonstrated passion for the industry.

To find out how financial assistance from SEMA has helped graduates pay off loans while working at their dream jobs, SEMA Member News recently caught up with three loan-forgiveness recipients. Each had an interesting story to tell as they recounted their somewhat circuitous routes into an industry they love.

Georgia native Nick D’Orazio attended Toyota’s Technician Training & Education Network (T-TEN), a two-year automotive repair program. While later pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, he worked as an intern at Fox Racing Shocks. A two-time SEMA scholarship winner, D’Orazio now works full time at Fox Factory Inc.

Collin Gentry wanted to be a Spanish teacher. But after earning a degree and studying abroad to further master the language, he was unable to find a teaching job close to home. As luck would have it, he learned of a job opening at Meyer Distributing. It was a life-changing opportunity.

Jennifer LaFever is a lifelong motorsports enthusiast. But she never imagined a hobby could be a career until she graduated from college and saw an ad for the NASCAR Technical Institute. Though years would pass before she enrolled, it’s paid off big time. LaFever, named the top loan forgiveness student in 2014, now holds a key position at Roush-Yates Performance Products.

Nick D'Orazio
An avid off-roader, Nick D’Orazio turned an interest in auto mechanics into a career in design engineering at Fox Factory Inc. With financial assistance from SEMA, he’s been able to pay down on a higher-interest student loan.

Nick D’Orazio: From Auto Mechanic to Mechanical Engineering

After high school, I wasn’t interested in attending college. I decided to study automotive repair at the Toyota T-TEN program. I then worked for an independent Volvo shop and went back to college to study mechanical engineering.

Growing up, my brother and I were involved in off-roading. We thought we would eventually open a shop together. But through working as a mechanic, I realized I am better suited to the design of these products instead of working on them. So I transferred to Georgia Tech, where I did a six-month internship at Fox Racing Shocks. I returned to Georgia Tech to finish my last semester and started full time at Fox in 2016. I’m in the design engineering group that develops new products, from concept to finished product.

While at Georgia Tech, I worked at a company that offered a scholarship to employees who were in college. That scholarship was managed by the same company that manages the SEMA scholarship program, and they suggested I was a good candidate for the SEMA program. I applied four times, won two scholarships and the loan forgiveness award.

The ability to have decreased loan payments from the scholarships decreased my overall need while in college. With the loan forgiveness, I’ve been able to target one higher-interest loan and reduce the overall amount. In doing that, I’m able to spend more on non-fixed expenses and having fun in the aftermarket.

If someone’s already focused on being in the aftermarket, it’s a no-brainer to apply for these programs. I encourage young people to be active in SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) competitions at their school. That will bolster their ability as young engineers to become involved in the automotive industry, to apply for scholarships and loan forgiveness awards through SEMA and move into an industry they’re passionate about.

Collin Gentry
Saddled with student loan debt, Collin Gentry took a job at Meyer Distributing just to pay the bills, but was soon hooked on the industry. Grateful for SEMA loan forgiveness awards, he encourages others to take advantage of the program.

Collin Gentry: One Door Closes, Another Opens on a New Career

My goal was to be a Spanish teacher. I studied in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I lived with a host family for five months to become fluent in the language. When I got back, I graduated from the University of Southern Indiana in 2011.

It all starts when you get out of school and you’re sitting with $40,000–$50,000 in loan debt. You just need to make money.  I wanted to find a job in southern Indiana, but I couldn’t find a teaching position. Then, a friend said there was a sales position open at Meyer Distributing. It was not at all what I had in mind. I took the job just to start paying bills, but it turned into so much more.

I had only been at Meyer about three months when I won an essay contest through the SEMA Young Executives Network (YEN). The essay had to do with involvement in the industry, passion and drive, and how to contribute to the growth of the industry. YEN flew me to the SEMA Show. It was then that I got to see everything that the industry offers, and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

I started as a sales guy on the phone. Then I was a manager, but still required to be on the phone drumming up business. I’m currently the exhaust and undercar category manager with a team of six employees across the nation.

The whole industry was new to me when I started. Luckily, I had a really good boss and mentor who told me about the opportunities SEMA offers to college graduates and encouraged me to apply. It was great advice. The first time, I received $2,000. I’ve re-applied and have won a total of $8,000. It has helped tremendously. If you’ve got $2,000 to drop on your debt, it makes an impact.  

It’s a wonderful program. I can’t thank SEMA enough. Student loan debt is no fun, and the award helps to free you from that financial burden. I wish more people would apply. They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Jennifer LaFever
Motorsports enthusiast Jennifer LaFever always dreamt of working in the industry. Now in her dream job at Roush-Yates Performance Products, she views financial assistance from SEMA as a bonus that allows her to pursue her passion.

Jennifer LaFever: It’s All About Passion, Not a Paycheck

I’m a California native. I went to the University of California, Davis, for my mechanical engineering degree, with a minor in economics. Growing up, my dad was into motorsports. So I was immersed in it from a young age, but to me, it was always a hobby. I didn’t know it could be a career.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I thought I might make a career out of something I am passionate about, and not just make a paycheck. I saw an advertisement for the NASCAR Technical Institute. I flew to North Carolina, realized all the teams are in this area and that the school would give me a hands-on experience that was different from my technical engineering degree.

But I already had a job lined up in the semiconductor tool industry. I worked there for a few years and ended up as a quality engineer. I loved it. It was really exciting because when I was in engineering school it was super hard. I can’t come up with things out of thin air; it isn’t my strength. So when I realized that my engineering degree had more applications, I was thrilled.

I quit my job in the middle of the recession to pursue this passion that was still nagging me. I attended an automotive technology program at University Technical Institute (UTI), where I won a $10,000 scholarship. Now that I had money, I signed up for the NASCAR elective and was able to commit to moving to North Carolina and getting that NASCAR certificate.

One of my instructors asked if I had had an internship. I didn’t know that was an opportunity. But within days I had interviews lined up with two NASCAR teams and a job with Roush-Yates Racing Engines as an intern in the quality department—all because they saw that I had that experience, and I also have automotive and engineering!

I graduated in September 2011, and in October, I became manager of the quality department. Two years ago, I was promoted to director of quality for all of NASCAR production at Roush-Yates Performance Products. It’s very challenging, but that’s what I love about it. What attracted me to motorsports, and what keeps me here, are the passion and excitement.

I heard about the SEMA program from a co-worker, who suggested I apply. I’ve won two loan forgiveness awards. It goes back to that passion. Loan payments are a burden. Loan forgiveness relieves that burden, and it relieves the idea of having to chase the money. It’s basically a $2,000 bonus that has allowed me to work and stay in an industry I am passionate about.