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Who Believed in You?

Today at lunch I went through all the mail that accumulated while I was away last week -- mostly junk (no, Delta, there's really no need to offer our family your credit card four times in seven days), but with some lovely bits thrown in.

One of the bright spots was the Fall 2012 issue of Strive and Succeed, the Horatio Alger publication for National Scholars. Basically I qualify to receive this magazine because when I was seventeen, some total strangers believed in me and my abilities, giving me a scholarship to defray my expenses at sign-over-your-arms-and-legs-on-the-dotted-line Wellesley College.

It wasn't the money that helped, in retrospect. It was only a $5,000 scholarship, which didn't go that far toward potted-Ivy tuition even in the late 1980s. When I received the scholarship, Wellesley just deducted $1,250 a year from its financial aid grant to me, so Horatio Alger's monetary gift turned out to be a wash.

But the scholarship was valuable in ways I could never have expected. It was a tremendous boost to the confidence of a small-town Midwestern kid who had large-scale dreams but a minuscule budget. The Horatio Alger scholarship, as you might have guessed, is awarded to kids from the other side of the tracks, the ones whose financial situations are tenuous enough to potentially derail their dreams.

At that time -- and I don't know if the organization still does this -- an adult honoree would make the trip to every award recipient's high school to present the award in person. In my year, it was boxing heavyweight champ George Foreman. We had an all-school assembly where Foreman gave a motivational speech. He explained his belief that anyone could come up from anywhere in America and achieve success, and then called me up to receive my award in front of the entire student body. I then got to spend the rest of the day hanging out with him, much to the jealousy of some of my peers (and some teachers).

A few weeks later, the Horatio Alger organization flew me and all the other award recipients to their national meeting. In the course of a whirlwind weekend, I got to meet a lot of famous businesspeople. Famous Amos gave all the students chocolate chip cookies and folksy advice on getting ahead. Mary Kay Ash, of Mary Kay cosmetics, sat across from me at brunch and was my roommate's sponsor.

And most importantly for me, I got into a long conversation with the president of the University of Arkansas. I don't remember his name, but he was kind and smart and really listened to the student award recipients. I remember feeling like he was truly interested in us, that he cared about our future plans. 

This was confirmed a few days after I got home. I got a letter from the University of Arkansas, offering me an all-expenses-paid education: tuition, room and board, and even a book stipend. I'd already committed to Wellesley and had no serious interest in going to Arkansas (with apologies to all of my husband's maternal ancestors). But the fact that this very busy person remembered me and took the time to make a surprise offer was an amazing.

Who believed in you? Today, let's think about the people who have extended a hand to help us achieve our dreams.

I thank God for those people. And I will find ways to pay their kindness forward.

Topics: Culture, Education
Beliefs: Interfaith
Tags: college scholarships, flunking sainthood, george foreman, gratitude, horatio alger association, horatio alger national scholars, horatio alger scholarship, jana riess, pay it forward


  1. Thanks for making me think!  There have been many people, but the one that influenced my career choice is probably the most important.  I struggled with math in junior high and flunked algebra in 8th grade.  My science teacher, Laura Wise, thought that I was a gifted student and spent every day after school tutoring me in math.  I worked problems while she set up experiments and then she dropped me off on her way home. 

    Although she has since passed away, I always remember her when I look at my college aged students and try to believe in them the way that she believed in me.  Gratitude is important!

  2. I hear you. I’ve had people like that, and the chances they took on me is one of the reasons I work so hard. I too, thank God for people like that.

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  4. My dad was a letter carrier, my mom a waitress.  My former junior high school principal, in a community where very few kids went on to college, had moved up to an administrative position at the local state university, and helped me get a scholarship and need based financial aid that covered my entire BA degree program.  I suspect there were a lot of kids whom he helped in the same way.

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