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Twenty-three-year-old Eryn LaLonde, of Apollo Beach, is currently entering her fourth semester of graduate school and hasn’t paid a penny out of pocket for her education. She’s remained debt free through scholarships she’s been awarded during her years of competition in the Miss America Organization and various other sources. These include the American Association of University Women, Anna Maria Island Privateers Scholarship, Federation of American Consumers and Travelers, Women’s Resource Center and Manatee Community Foundation. As part of her personal Miss America platform, Operation Success, Planning and Paying for Higher Education, LaLonde’s mission is to provide people of all ages the tools they need to acquire scholarships; learn the basics of applying for them; resume writing; obtain reference letters; draft required essays; and write thank-you letters. All of this information is available on her website, www.erynlalonde.com and through workshops she hosts in the community or via Zoom. “Last year in Florida, students took on $1.9 billion in student loan debt,” LaLonde said. “Nationally, the total was $1.7 trillion. And that doesn’t even account for the interest (accruing) on these amounts.” Sadly, last year in southwest Florida alone $4 million in scholarships were left unawarded, she said. “Don’t let scholarship requirements turn you off from applying,” LaLonde added. “My first scholarship was $1,500 for men’s golf. I saw it, applied and was the only person who did.” This is why LaLonde’s so enthusiastic about Operation Success and providing another free service: helping students and their families find ways of paying off student loan debts through scholarships and grants. “People don’t realize these are available,” she said. “They’re harder to find, but they’re out there. And they can be applied for after-the-fact.” Recently, for example, LaLonde helped a man erase $6,000 of student loan debt he took on 20 years ago.
About Eryn LaLonde Born in Tarpon Springs and raised in Bradenton, LaLonde moved to Apollo Beach about a year ago. She began competing in Miss America Pageant Organization events her freshman year of high school as a way to earn scholarship money and won Manatee County Outstanding Teen in 2015. Her latest competition will be for Miss Tampa Jan. 8. If she wins, LaLonde will advance to the Miss Florida event in June, and then move on to compete for the title of Miss America at the end of next year. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in business in March 2020. She’s currently a semester away from earning a master’s degree in healthcare administration from the University of Central Florida and wants to go on for a PhD. In addition to pageant competition and employment in the medical field, LaLonde makes community service an important part of her life. She has donated more than 3,500 hours of her time to various nonprofit organizations and causes. To contact her, visit www.erynlalonde.com or find her on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.