Ohio native Abbey Cowens came to Memphis just seven years ago, but she’s already making her mark. With a firm belief in the power of education, she became Executive Director of Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust (MOST) in August 2020, bringing new energy and ideas to the scholarship program for Memphis schoolchildren in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Her goal is to increase the nonprofit’s annual per-student amount to keep up with tuition increases and grow corporate sponsorships — all while helping raise awareness and handling the day-to-day of running an organization. Meet this energetic and giving FACE of Memphis, Abbey Cowens!
What brought you to Memphis?
My husband worked for E.W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati, which owned the Commercial Appeal. He took a job here with the paper and then started a commercial print company. We could have gone back to Cincinnati, but we chose to stay. We felt very comfortable in Memphis, and we’d made so many wonderful friends. The community has such a good pace, and my husband and I knew it would be easy to raise our two boys here.
How did your path lead you to MOST?
After our move to Memphis, I realized fully how much I enjoy seeing people help the community at large. I became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and absolutely LOVED it. The experience introduced me to so many different areas of Memphis and also showed me a great need in the community. After that, I worked for the Memphis Jewish Federation. While I was there, I discovered that I enjoyed working for a cause. Coming to MOST allowed me to combine my passion for philanthropy with the belief I’ve always held that education can change the course of a person’s life.
Tell us about MOST. What is your mission, and why is it so important to Memphis schoolchildren and their families?
MOST’s mission is to give Memphis-area families opportunities to send their children to the school that best fits their needs regardless of financial constraints or ZIP codes. If private school is the best option, we are here to help families bridge the gap between what a school’s financial aid can provide and what the family can afford to pay by providing scholarships.
We partner with more than 50 private schools in Shelby County, have hundreds of applicants every February, and have provided over $22 million in scholarships to over 3,500 students since 1998, which goes to show the need that is there. According to MOST’s parents, they are choosing specific schools for a variety of reasons, including academics, social factors, and safety.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Our biggest challenge is that some people believe that we are against public school. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We are pro-school choice, allowing parents to find the school that best fits their child’s needs. Public schools, homeschooling, charter schools, and private schools are all great choices. Every child has different educational needs. If private school happens to be the best option, MOST is there to bridge the gap.
A second challenge is keeping up with tuition increases. On average, tuition increases by 9 percent every year, and MOST scholarships have not kept up. We just raised the scholarship maximum this year, and it is my goal to raise it every year to keep up with what the schools are charging. We want to be able to really make a difference with what we provide.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Without hesitation, when we see students excelling. There is a young lady graduating from ECS this year who, among numerous accomplishments, has earned the Sewanee Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship – awarded to one student annually – that covers tuition, fees, room and board, and study abroad. Her ultimate goal is to go to law school and become a judge.
I’m also excited about our new Founder’s Scholarships. We started offering five this year. In addition to our need-based scholarships, these allow rising ninth graders to apply for a merit-based scholarship for their four years in high school. We are in the middle of the interviewing process now. We have some very impressive students!
Where can we find you when you are not working?
Right now, if I’m not at work, I’m at a baseball or soccer field, watching my sons. I grew up an athlete, and my parents were at every event. That’s what I remember most and what I try to do with my kids. I want them to remember that we supported them in everything they do.
When you have visitors to Memphis, where do you take them?
When we first moved here, everyone told us we had to go to Jerry’s Sno Cones! We loved it, and now we always take visitors. When it is nice, I love to be outdoors so we go to concerts at Levitt Shell. A walk around the lake at Shelby Farms is always great, and we enjoy eating at Coastal Fish Company – the view and the food are spectacular. Salsa is another favorite; I love to sit outside and have a margarita.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Find your passion, build your career around it, and create a fantastic support system.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Books, TV, and Kentucky basketball. I know, I know – I’m not supposed to say that in Memphis! I grew up watching it with my dad; it’s our thing, and we still watch it together.
Thank you, Abbey!