From a young age, Julianna Hilton and Jessica Rodriguez set their sights on attending college after graduating from Camden Academy Charter High School but had no idea how they would pay for it.

Their parents and teachers stressed the importance of getting an education, but the teens did not want to put a financial burden on their families. So, they considered less costly options, possibly attending a community college or living at home.

With four-year scholarships from MHS Lift, a material-handling supply firm in Pennsauken, both are heading to Rowan University this fall with a full ride and no cost to their families. The family-owned business last year pledged more than $200,000 to create a scholarship fund with Rowan and the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County.

“It means that I am going to go to college for free,” said Rodriguez, 17, who plans to major in economics and math. “I’m so excited because it’s a big university.”

Rodriguez, the first girls’ basketball player at her school to score 1,000 career points, and Hilton, 18, said college was a priority at their charter school, where the motto is “We go to college.” Founded in 2005, the school boasts that more than 800 of its students have enrolled in college. Both teens are also youth counselors at the Boys & Girls Club who said they want to serve as role models to encourage other city students.

Julianna Hilton, 18, of Camden, an aspiring trauma nurse, received a scholarship from MHS Lift to attend Rowan University.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer
Julianna Hilton, 18, of Camden, an aspiring trauma nurse, received a scholarship from MHS Lift to attend Rowan University.

“I was going to college, regardless,” said Hilton, a biological science/psychology major and an aspiring trauma nurse. “I didn’t want to be in debt. It would have been more stressful.”

The scholarships will cover roughly half of the costs for the teens to attend Rowan; Rodriguez obtained another academic scholarship and Hilton’s financial-aid package will fill in the gap. The cost for a full-time student at Rowan for the 2020-21 school year is $23,706, including tuition and room and board. The school expects to enroll 2,600 freshmen.

Hilton said her twin brother, Jayden, plans to attend Camden County College to become an EMT. The youngest of three, Rodriguez has two older sisters enrolled at Rutgers-Camden. A four-year varsity basketball player, Rodriguez had hoped to attend a Division II school but couldn’t afford it. She plans to try out for the Rowan team.

“We had to go,” said Rodriguez, an aspiring sports statistician. “Going to college was not an option.”

Brothers Andy and Brett Levin, owners of MHS Lift, said they wanted to do something to help students in Camden. Andy, 49, serves on the board of the Boys & Girls Club. The scholarship fund awarded its first scholarship last year to Amir King Jr., of Camden, a rising sophomore at Rowan.

“This was a good opportunity for us” to help, said Brett Levin, 46.

Added Andy: “We just felt that if they got a break, got a chance … the opportunity for many of these kids would be limitless.”

MHS was founded by their father, Robert, in 1970. The brothers, who grew up in Cherry Hill, purchased the firm eight years ago. With about 170 employees, the company provides forklifts and warehouse equipment.

Eligible scholarship recipients must be in good academic standing, active members of the Boys & Girls Club, full-time state residents, and have a demonstrated financial need. Five students applied this year, said Bernadette Shanahan, the club’s executive director. The recipients also receive academic support and money for books. Levin said the company initially agreed to provide renewable scholarships for four students but hopes to offer more.

“These kids are just tremendous,” said Andy Levin. “As long as we can continue to keep doing it, we are going to do it.”

The scholarships have “zero” strings attached, although the Levins said they hope the recipients will return to Camden after graduation and “pass it on,” Brett Levin said.

Jessica Rodriguez, 17, of Camden, one of two MHS Lift scholarship winners, plans to major in Economics and math at Rowan University in the fall.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer
Jessica Rodriguez, 17, of Camden, one of two MHS Lift scholarship winners, plans to major in Economics and math at Rowan University in the fall.

Both teens, born and raised in Camden, said they plan to give back. Rodriguez wants to open a free basketball clinic for youngsters in the city.

“I recognize this is a rare opportunity and I plan on showing you can get a good education living in Camden,” said Hilton. “Not everyone is able to be blessed like this.”