From her perch in the Calhoun dining hall, card-swiper Jessika Booker plays mother hen to Yale students not much younger than she is. She teases one boy about his mustache; she recommends hot chocolate to the flock coming in from the cold. And underneath her seat, she stores a shelled, white thing — this mother hen’s equivalent to a nested egg.

It’s a textbook.

“I’m a full-time mom, full-time employee, full-time student,” Jessika chirped. At 23, this Gateway Community College student pays her own way through school. She whips out her schoolwork during pauses — burps — in the hubbub of the dining hall where she happens to be employed.

Or if you want to look at it another way: She’s a Yale employee who happens to go to Gateway.

Student or worker, which is she? A pedantic question, perhaps. But to Yale employees officially classed in the Clerical & Technical, Service & Maintenance and Managerial & Professional divisions and weighing enrollment at a local or online college, the answer can seem obvious: Your job comes first. This is especially true because the only way many can pay for school is by taking advantage of Yale’s tuition reimbursements program, an opportunity available to workers as long as they remain on Yale’s payroll for the duration of their course of study.

And things get complicated. Full-time employees who have been here for five or more years pocket a 100 percent reimbursement (not to exceed $4,600 a year). Meanwhile, full-time employees with less than five years’ service claim 75 percent reimbursement (and up to $2,300 a year).

The provisos, unwinding, could dizzy you. Yale’s Human Resources Office writes on its website that all employees seeking tuition reimbursements must receive a passing grade of C- or better to claim the promised benefit. But, back in Calhoun, Booker was under the impression that she needed at least a B average.

Other dining hall staffers tried to disabuse me of the notion that Yale would pay for them to study whatever the hell they want — now, why would Yale do that, they asked, assuming limits on the degree programs they could pursue.

They were wrong, but not entirely: Yale does not dictate what employees should study, but does offer a separate subsidy for professional development (a consequence of local union bargaining). For workers weighing education costs, the two programs are easy to confuse.

Rather than getting caught up in the obscure nuances of benefits, many employees seem largely nonchalant about them. At most, they are slightly peeved at what they perceive as irrelevant minutiae — if they’re even aware of all the differences in benefits, which none of the 10 interviewed for this piece were.

K.C Mills, the operations manager at Silliman College, is cheerfully, if sporadically, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of New Haven. Mills, who earlier in her life completed some course work at another UNH (the University of New Hampshire), showed me her online reimbursement portal and explained that she plugs in her information, and that’s that. There’s no point in haggling with a computer, and for Mills, who has had her entire tuition covered by Yale, no need. She’s content.

Calm like Mills’ is the norm, but that’s until employees’ plans hit a roadblock. Imagine the dilemma: They’ve used up their reimbursement funds. They’re not exactly full-time, and don’t qualify for sufficient reimbursement. They don’t know reimbursement will cover a degree in art history.

That’s where the Yale Women’s Organization (YUWO) scholarships might come in handy.

For a woman.

* * *

While students are scrambling for grants and fellowships, it’s also application season for some female staff on campus. If Yale won’t fully reimburse their course tuition, the little-known but well-funded YUWO might, provided they apply by March 1. Decisions are reported by April 30.

When Working Mother magazine cited Yale as one of the 100 best (read: working mother-friendly) companies in the nation, it specifically mentioned the YUWO scholarships, along with the University’s tuition reimbursement program. But while a national magazine caught wind of the opportunity, many of its potential beneficiaries have not.

At five residential college dining halls, female pantry workers interviewed said they had never heard of the YUWO scholarships. One refused to volunteer her name, lest we report her to her manager for even considering the option. Some thought we were hawking wares. “Tell me more about this scholarship?” they said, leaning in.

Felicia Tencza, the current scholarships coordinator for YUWO, says the organization sends flyers to supervisors and department managers, and that information about the scholarships appears in the newsletter “Working at Yale.”

And Trudy Bollier, a YUWO member and scholarships coordinator for 2010–’11, says some candidates to the scholarship have applied at their supervisor’s urging.

But based on those dining hall conversations, one can suspect that certain supervisors — maybe a sampling error’s amount — are loath to accommodate an employee prioritizing education over work.

When asked whether she would now consider applying for the scholarships after having been informed about it, one dining hall worker, the same one who withheld her name, laughed us off.

“I don’t have time anyway, because my schedule’s all messed up.”

One might think the Yale University Women’s Organization is out of touch with the lives of the women it’s trying to help.

But its scholarships were conceived out of empathy, not sympathy. Kay Ross, the founder of the scholarships, whose husband, Bollier says, was an administrator in the sciences, had her own college studies interrupted before her marriage. In 1972, she awarded a first scholarship of $100.

Since then, the YUWO — now a club of local female Yale affiliates — has been awarding scholarships to women employees or the wives of Yale employees wishing to start or resume an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or to pursue a degree from another certificate-granting program (say, for teaching). It’s sincerely looking to help women who had their studies interrupted before they completed their higher education.

Yes, their name might make one think of a prissy, white-gloved society luncheon — this is Yale, after all. And, as if on cue, Bollier told me that the group’s three highlights — in addition to the interest groups, like book, bridge and music clubs, advertised in their brochure — are a wine-and-cheese event, a holiday party and a May luncheon.

But the holiday party serves a noble purpose: fundraising for the scholarships. The guests of honor at that May luncheon are scholarship recipients.

They’re not the patronizing old birds we’d like to imagine, instead the YUWO’s leaders prove to be a classy bunch sans snobbery.

* * *

YUWO wants to help — but it can only do so much.

Nowadays, depending on the generosity of donors, YUWO awards around seven annual scholarships — one of them in honor of Kay Ross — that each provide between $1,000 and $3,000. According to its website, the organization has awarded 310 scholarships, totaling some $316,675.

Money for the scholarships comes entirely from donations, mostly from the over 300 members of the Women’s Organization and their friends, Bollier says. Those donations are made on top of membership fees.

So, given the state of the economy, the organization’s resource pool has predictably shrunk. In lockstep, the number of awards has steadily declined in the past few years. In 2008, 12 scholarships were granted. In 2009, nine. In 2010 and 2011, seven.

Last year, only five scholarships were awarded.

“What we’ve tried to do is move to larger awards as opposed to something under $1,000, because it’s a little more meaningful,” current coordinator Tencza says. But she emphasizes that the number and size of the scholarships depend on “who applies and what their financial need is.”

In a follow-up email, Tencza wrote that, in order to reduce the number of inquiries from ineligible candidates, YUWO “strives to sharpen our narrative description of eligibility.”

“It seems to be working. … Inquiries are reduced, not eliminated,” she wrote.

The application process for the scholarship is not especially arduous. Aside from basic (mostly financial) information, it asks for a one-page statement of purpose and two letters of recommendation. It is hard to imagine that many degree-seeking Yale employees don’t qualify.

Of course, first they need to be aware of its existence.

Michelle Gary, the card-swiper at Branford dining hall, was the last potentially eligible Yale employee interviewed for this piece. And her verdict on the scholarship was clear: “We should know these things.”