By Vickie Bane
November 26, 2007 12:00 PM

Pensal McCray, 65

Founder, Ethnic College Counseling Center

SHE DID IT HERSELF: When Pensal McCray’s oldest daughter, Talia, was 16, she came home in tears after a high school counselor told the Denver honors student she didn’t qualify for any college scholarships. Rather than listen to the misguided advice, McCray began searching for scholarships and grants on her own, poring over reference books, cold-calling colleges and even enlisting the help of the school custodian, who dug up scholarship forms in the trash. “I followed up on every lead,” says the classical pianist, who eventually secured scholarships for all five of her children—two went on to medical school; another two received doctorates—before expanding her reach to Colorado-area teens. “This is my passion,” says McCray.

SPREADING THE WORD: Since 1983 the former teacher has helped 1,800 minority students tap into scholarships to schools ranging from Morehouse College to Yale University. Starting out in her kitchen with her late husband, Christophe, then relocating to a nearby church, McCray counsels students on applications for a small fee, which helps cover the cost of taking students on a cross-country tour of black universities. Such commitment is “pretty rare,” says Tracey Raiford of the Daniels Fund, which often grants scholarships to McCray’s students. “Pensal is a total gem.”

REALIZING DREAMS: “Mrs. McCray made everything attainable,” says Angela LeDuff, 27, who won scholarships to Langston University in Oklahoma and now plans to attend graduate school. “She was like my second mother.” Adds Bianka Emerson, 29, a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge: “Any time I was going through something in college, she would talk me through it. She’s the ultimate mentor.”

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