Helping One Aids Many

Abby Bernhagen

Abby Bernhagen, a May 2012 civil engineering graduate, credits her Great People Scholarship with helping her complete her degree.

Thanks to a Great People Scholarship, residents of Nejapa, El Salvador, are closer to having clean water.

Abby Bernhagen, who in May graduated from the University of Wisconsin– Madison with a degree in civil engineeering, was a member of the student organization Engineers Without Borders–El Salvador. “I worked with the wastewater treatment group, testing wastewater that had been collected in Nejapa, where a new treatment plant is being built,” she said. “The city’s treatment plant is not working at all. The dirty water is running through it and is actually worse once it’s discharged.”

Bernhagen, from Marshfield, Wisconsin, received the Ann Hoyt-Robert Mathieu Great People Scholarship for the 2011-12 academic year. Established by an anonymous colleague, the scholarship honors professors Hoyt and Mathieu, who as heads of the University Committee led the 2008 push on campus that kick-started the wider Great People Scholarship Campaign.

More than 500 students received Great People Scholarships in 2011-12, up from 69 in 2010-11, the first year the scholarships were awarded. So far, more than $27 million has been raised for Great People Scholarships, which are part of financial aid packages that can include student and family contributions, grants, loans and work study.

“My parents got divorced when I was in high school, so our financial situation changed entirely,” Bernhagen said. “I wouldn’t have been able to attend UW–Madison without my Great People Scholarship. It’s been wonderful, the generosity of the donors. It’s made my whole experience possible.”

“It’s been wonderful, the generosity of the donors. It’s made my whole experience possible.”

Abby Bernhagen

In high school, Bernhagen took an advanced placement environmental science course, and her teacher suggested she would be a great engineer. “I didn’t even know what engineers did,” she said. “I researched it a little bit and thought, ‘You know what? I could actually do something that would help people.’”

That’s the kind of impact Mathieu, professor of astronomy, hoped would occur when the Great People campaign was launched. In addition to being honored through the Hoyt-Mathieu scholarship, Mathieu established the endowed Mathieu Family Great People Scholarship.

“I think everyone recognizes that, for whatever the many reasons may be, the cost of a UW–Madison education is going up. It’s becoming harder for students to be able to afford it,” he said. “Our goal, among faculty and staff, is that students who have worked hard to achieve their goals and are admitted should be able to attend. Finances shouldn’t be the determining factor.”

Bernhagen’s Great People Scholarship helped her focus on studies and join student organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers and the student chapter of the American Waterworks Association, in addition to Engineers Without Borders. She also worked in the UW–Madison Water Science and Engineering Lab.

“You get to apply those skills and concepts around the world where it actually matters,” she said. It’s likely the people of Nejapa, El Salvador, would agree.