The money and the tears are running freely into the scholarship cup at Aquinas College.
When Aquinas announced the launch of the Aquinas College Family Scholarship Endowment Program in honor of its 125th anniversary, the staff behind it discussed their dream to honor the multiple generations of families associated with the college.
“We’ve already had over $1 million in the campaign and 44 families that have established scholarships,” said Cecilia Cunningham, Aquinas’ director of major gifts.
“The beauty of the endowed scholarships is that they last forever. The beauty of that … in just logistical terms, the power of it is these are families that really believe in Aquinas, love Aquinas, have history with it. … It’s just beautiful,” she said.
In an endowment scholarship, the core money donated remains in the scholarship, and awards are based on the interest generated from that principal investment, Cunningham said. Year after year, the scholarships will be available, she said.
When the scholarship donors come for their official presidential signing ceremonies, many family members and friends arrive to celebrate the founding of the new scholarship, Cunningham said, turning it into a family reunion of sorts.
Emotions overwhelm many as participants make a joyful and moving statement about their commitment to the college, she said, especially if the scholarship is designed as a “memorial scholarship.”
“A lot of times there’s been misty eyes and tears,” Cunningham said. “It’s very emotional and meaningful the ways these families are celebrating Aquinas, and this investment that will be around forever.”
The minimum amount for an endowment scholarship was set at $15,000. So far, the largest amount donated is $125,000. The majority of the scholarships are based on the financial need of the student.
The money is important, but even more important is the community of legacy the scholarship creates, Cunningham said.
“I think of the several young couples that have children,” she said. “One day those kids will gather somewhere on campus and they’ll be able to say to their kids, ‘Now this is what Grandma and Grandpa started 40 years ago.’”
One young couple is Rachel and Mike Mraz, who, although they donated to create their own Aquinas endowment scholarship, did not actually attend Aquinas.
Rachel Mraz, a vice president and wealth management advisor at Merrill Lynch, said she and her husband met at Cornell University. A Grand Rapids native, eventually she earned a master’s degree in financial service with a focus in tax and philanthropic planning from The American College.
At 31, the two are the youngest non-alumni scholarship donors.
“We want to impact locally,” Mraz said. “When it came to wanting to support a higher education closer to home, we literally live about two blocks from Aquinas, and we were impressed by everything they do.”
Although Mraz did not need financial aid through school, her husband did, which has made both of them empathetic to the financial needs of students, she said.
Mraz hopes their donation not only attracts students to West Michigan, but keeps them here.
“In the future, we’d love to encourage people to stay in Grand Rapids. That would be ideal,” she said. “We’ve been back here for 10 years and can’t even imagine leaving.”