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Ava Motl has been obsessed with high fashion since she was 8. By the time she was 12, Motl began posting her own designs on Instagram.

Now 17, she's the seamstress for the O'Shea Irish Dance troupe and hopes to attend a fashion school in New York.

The Robbinsdale teen, who is homeschooled, is hoping to parlay those skills into a $10,000 scholarship sponsored by the Duck Tape brand. The prompt? To create a prom dress out of nothing but the product. Motl's sister spotted the promotion on Instagram.

"I thought, 'Okay, sure, let's give it a go,'" Motl said. "I thought it would be something different and kind of a challenge."

From dressmaking to dairy farming, Minnesota students with specific interests have a bevy of scholarship opportunities available to them. The College Board, an organization that tracks scholarships in addition to its duties administering the SATs, counts about $4 billion offered by 6,000 programs.

Many of those opportunities cater to students who are interested in attending a career or technical school.

"You'll find scholarships that aren't just for students with the highest GPAs and looking to go to a four-year school," said Greg Rafal, implementation director for the organization's BigFuture college prep program.

As the cost of a college education rises, Rafal also encourages families to talk about financial opportunities as early as their high schoolers' sophomore year.

"Planning for life after high school can be very complicated, and when you add on the very real concern in how you pay for what's next, it gets more complex," he said.

Some scholarship are as simple as entering a lottery. That's how the College Board offers awards between $500 and $40,000 each year. Since 2019, the organization has awarded $50,500 to 84 students in Minnesota.

Locally, the Minnesota State Fair has awarded more than $584,000 in scholarships over the course of nearly three decades. The deadline for this year's round of awards is fast approaching — they're due on Aug. 1.

For students like Motl, that financial assistance makes it easier to follow her dream of working in luxury fashion. She has one year of school left and hopes to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology or the Parsons design program at the New School, where tuition for one semester can top $27,000.

"Chanel, Dior — they would be an absolute dream to work for," Motl said. "This would definitely help me get there."

Teen fashionista Ava Motl stands for a portrait wearing her duct tape prom dress inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Saturday, July 1, 2023, in Robbinsdale, Minn.
Teen fashionista Ava Motl stands for a portrait wearing her duct tape prom dress inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Saturday, July 1, 2023, in Robbinsdale, Minn.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

A majority of U.S. residents surveyed by Gallup in late 2022 said the cost of tuition was a major barrier to higher education. Of the approximately 3,000 current students surveyed, 58% called their financial aid package a "very important" factor in staying in school. Of those who aren't currently enrolled, 55% said cost was a major factor in their decision.

Kelsey Biel, a rising senior at the University of Minnesota, credits a patchwork of scholarships in helping her pursue a degree in agricultural education. She grew up on a dairy farm outside Harmony, a town of about 1,000 residents in southeast Minnesota, and helped her parents feed calves most mornings.

Biel soon began raising her own heifer and showing it at the Minnesota State Fair through 4-H. That included a 10-minute presentation on how to properly care for a dairy cow, from vaccinations to the way the bovine digestive system works.

"Having a bunch of random fairgoers listen to what the dairy industry is doing was a great experience," she said.

Those presentations laid the groundwork for what Biel sees as her eventual career: Teaching agricultural science to middle- and high-schoolers. But she was taken aback when she began searching for a college.

"There's such a sticker shock when you're looking at schools," Biel said.

First-year students at the U can expect to pay about $33,000, according to university estimates, for tuition, room and board.

"I am so, so very thankful for their [State Fair] scholarship programs," said Biel, who won three scholarships worth a combined $2,500 through the fair. "Without that, I definitely would have a harder time paying for school."

Carson Ruen, a rising sophomore at Iowa State University, where out-of-state tuition runs about $13,000 per semester, credits a $1,000 State Fair scholarship for helping him land at his dream school.

He's pursuing a degree in agricultural business, which Ruen hopes will prepare him to help the family hog farm in Lanesboro, Minn., thrive. There was a time when he had to decide between attending the U in the Twin Cities or Iowa State.

"Having these scholarships made it an easier decision," Ruen said. "I really wanted to meet a different group of people and expand my network when I got to college."