Great People Scholarships Give Great Students a Boost

Great People seniors

From left, Alicia Abercrombie, Xe Yang and Sebastian Puchalski were among the first recipients of University of Wisconsin Credit Union Great People Scholarships.

Like a lot of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Xe Yang from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, worked hard in class, earning a BS in nursing this spring.

She worked hard outside the classroom as a nursing assistant in neurosurgery at UW Hospital and Clinics. Thanks to a University of Wisconsin Credit Union Great People Scholarship, the first-generation college student was able to give up a second job as an assistant at a retirement home to devote more time to her studies, which she hopes take her to graduate school. “My Great People Scholarship has helped me financially with part of my tuition, and it allows me to concentrate on my studies, so I didn’t have to work so many hours,” Yang said. “It has helped pay for my essentials and stay more focused on earning my degree.”

Since its launch in 2008, the Great People Scholarship Campaign has raised nearly $13 million in gifts to support talented students with financial need. After UW Foundation matches – dollar for dollar for campuswide scholarship gifts and 50 cents on the dollar for scholarships directed to specific schools or colleges – more than $24 million has been generated for the scholarship campaign.

Great People Scholarships are part of aid packages put together by the Office of Student Financial Aid that often include student and family contributions, loans and work-study employment. Each award is for $2,000. Chancellor Biddy Martin has identified the Great People Scholarship Campaign as her highest campus priority, because, in her words, “we share a belief that neither origin nor economic circumstance should be barriers to earning a UW-Madison degree.”

A hand up for students

The UW Credit Union was an early corporate donor and advocate for the Great People Scholarship. The credit union made an outright $215,000 gift to campuswide Great People Scholarships in 2008 and matched contributions from its members for the last three months of that year. The credit union’s total gift was matched by the UW Foundation, resulting in an endowment to support students.

Xe Yang

Xe Yang

“UW Credit Union strongly believes in the importance of quality higher education for students. In 2008, we established an endowment fund, as part of the Great People scholarships, of nearly $1.5 million to allow talented young people to attend UW-Madison,” said UW Credit Union President and CEO Paul Kundert.

Yang is one of 16 students who received UW Credit Union Great People Scholarships in the 2010-11 academic year. She has an older sister who also graduated from the UW-Madison School of Nursing, and a brother and sister will be freshmen at UW-Milwaukee in the fall.

Louise Root-Robbins, now with the Division of International Studies, was director of Community Outreach and Diversity at the School of Nursing when she got to know Yang. “She was coming to campus with her older sister even before she was enrolled,” Root-Robbins said. “Xe is very strong and focused, and she was instrumental in the creation of the Multicultural Student Nurses Organization. Without her involvement, that group probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Coming from a large Hmong family, Yang was able to see firsthand some of the issues that families with elders for whom English is not their first language have with the health-care system, Root-Robbins said. “Xe is very interested in these kinds of cross-cultural concerns, and her quiet commitment, engagement and focus lead her to successful outcomes,” Root-Robbins said.

For her part, Yang said, “I really appreciate the generosity of the donors. I don’t think I could have gone this far without them and what they have made possible.”

The most recent available data reports that about 65 percent of UW-Madison undergraduates receive financial aid, and that 50 percent of undergraduates leave campus with student-loan debt. That debt averages about $21,000 per student. Even with the second lowest tuition in the Big Ten, UW-Madison finds that many qualified and accepted students have financial barriers that prohibit them from attending.

More time for studies

UW Credit Union Great People Scholar Alicia Abercrombie graduated in May with a double major in journalism and legal studies. After “growing up all around the country,” she had offers from many colleges and chose the UW-Madison because “the Journalism School is so prestigious.”

Alicia Abercrombie

Alicia Abercrombie

“The UW Credit Union Great People Scholarship meant that instead of working so many hours, I could concentrate on my studies,” Abercrombie said. “I have always worked at least two jobs.”

During the spring semester, she was the webmaster for the Greater University Tutoring service, did some Web services for the Memorial Union and worked ID Check for Memorial Library. “This scholarship allowed me to cut down on my hours so I could be involved with extracurriculars and finish my senior year strong,” she said.

In her college years, Abercrombie reported on the campus beat for The Badger Herald student newspaper, reported and hosted a talk show for WSUM-FM, and was involved with the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference 2010.

“Alicia embodies the best of what I hope the Great People program can support,” said journalism faculty member Katy Culver. “She is inquisitive, energetic and engaged. She takes every intellectual opportunity and maximizes it. She’s exactly what we want to encourage at Wisconsin.

“Through three courses, I’ve been continually impressed by Alicia’s maturity and growth,” Culver said. “My most lasting memory of her work is a thoughtful and sophisticated package of multimedia stories she did on transgender. She was deeply committed to the issue, and her humanity showed throughout.”

Abercrombie appreciates the opportunity her Great People Scholarship has offered. “I want to thank the donors, because this scholarship has been incredibly helpful to me to be able to focus on school and my job search,” said Abercrombie, who would like to find a newspaper job or “maybe some marketing with a smaller firm that would allow me to be involved in the whole process.”

Supporting young leaders

Born in Warsaw, Poland, Sebastian Puchalski is a first-generation college student who went to high school in New York City. As a senior studying civil engineering, he too was the recipient of a UW Credit Union Great People Scholarship.

Sebastian Puchalski

Sebastian Puchalski

“The scholarship opened a huge amount of possibilities for me,” he said. “I want to thank the donors not only for the impact they have had on my life but also on the other people’s lives I will help through my work after I leave campus.”

Alicia Jackson is director of the Student Leadership Center in the College of Engineering and is the advisor to the Engineering Expo student committee. Students must apply to be a part of the Expo committee, and only a handful of students are selected to join the organization every other year. Puchalski was not only chosen for the committee, he also was elected as one of two executive co-chairs for the organization. He was responsible for oversight and management of the event, which brings close to 10,000 visitors to campus every other year.

“In co-chairing this committee, Sebastian ultimately assumed responsibility for overseeing all event logistics, including planning, implementation and delegation of tasks to the other student committee members who assist with the event,” Jackson said.

“I found Sebastian to be thoughtful, thorough and easy to work with. He is bright, inquisitive, always positive and upbeat and incredibly charming,” she said. “Through his work on Engineering Expo, Sebastian not only has demonstrated his ability to multitask, but also his passion for and commitment to the engineering profession. He is exactly the type of student leader we seek to produce here at UW-Madison – actively engaged in extracurricular activities and stepping up to volunteer and take on projects outside of the classroom, while still maintaining a solid grade-point average.”

Not only is he responsible, he’s also grateful. “Without my Great People Scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to attend UW-Madison,” said Puchalski, who hopes to enroll in graduate school in the College of Engineering. “This is such a tremendous opportunity for me, and I want to tell the donors how much my education here has changed my life.”