ravis Johnson, a junior enrolled in the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program

Travis Johnson, a junior enrolled in the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, gets a round of applause at the Millennium Student Center March 14 during the annual scholarship donor recognition luncheon. Johnson was one of four students who shared their UMSL experience and what their scholarships mean to them. (Photos by August Jennewein)

More than 200 people, equally divided between scholarship recipients and donors, met over lunch last Friday at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. When it was all over, there were a few tears, lots of smiles and grand applause.

Student scholars dominated the annual event, from the emcee podium to the program. UMSL’s Jazz Combo, which provided a mellow interlude, was made up of three scholarship students led by Jim Widner, associate teaching professor and director of jazz studies.

UMSL Chancellor Tom George welcomed the crowd, thanking the donors for their generosity and acknowledging the importance of their gifts.

“The overarching goal of the university’s new strategic plan is to increase the number of degrees granted annually from 3,000 to 3,600,” George said. “We cannot achieve that goal without you.”

Gustavo Perez Diaz, a senior majoring in music, served as emcee. He was one of four students who shared very personal stories about their dreams and what the scholarships mean to them. Perez Diaz , who received two Department of Music scholarships, has his sights set on opera.

“Without those scholarships I would have to work two jobs and wouldn’t have time for my singing lessons or the Opera Theatre Ensemble,” Perez Diaz said. “Without those scholarships I would not be graduating in December. I would not be pursuing a career in opera. It’s a dream I never thought would come true.”

In the ranks of scholarship recipients, Travis Johnson is a rock star. A junior enrolled in the UMSL/WUSTL Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program, Johnson has been awarded six scholarships. One of them, from the Nidec Motor Corporation, includes a 20-hour-a-week job in the company’s testing laboratory.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to know how things work,” Johnson told the crowd at UMSL’s Millennium Student Center. “When I started thinking about who I am and what I wanted in my future, engineering was the best choice. And the UMSL/Washington University program was the answer.”

Johnson said the luncheon gave him a chance to talk with professors, several donors, and potential employers.

“I even got to hand out my business card,” he said.

The four students talked about teachers and mentors who pushed them to succeed or shared their passion about a subject. And they thanked the people in the room, all university donors who give so that students like them can pursue their dream.

Elle Fitzpatrick, a junior majoring in biochemistry and biotechnology and minoring in criminology and criminal justice, told the audience about a science teacher in seventh grade who inspired her. She maintained that passion through high school and received an all-inclusive Opportunity Scholarship. Fitzgerald was part of the first cohort of students in 2011 to qualify for the scholarship sponsored by local corporations and individuals for high-achieving St. Louis students

“The Opportunity Scholars Program means I get to take an independent study in forensics this year with one of my professors. It’s something I couldn’t do if I didn’t live on campus. I’ve always wanted a career where I could help people. Hopefully, by pursuing forensics I will be able to solve some of the crimes that today go unsolved.”

Fitzpatrick said she’s heard about the scholarship donors often, but really enjoyed meeting them, hearing their stories and why they give to UMSL. She talked about the address by Joseph Porter, BSBA ’76, a successful attorney with Polsinelli, a generous donor and active participant in the life of the university.

One of the most compelling student stories in a room full of them came from Laquisha Robinson a single mother of three who earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing in December. After her third child was born, she told herself she was the only one who could turn her life around. She started back to school part time.

“I worked a full-time job and was a full-time mom,” Robinson said. “I exhausted any loans and grants I had. I borrowed from friends and family and sold things on eBay to pay my bills. I moved back home with my mother. But I remained steadfast, optimistic and persistent in my pursuit of a nursing career.”

Robinson received UMSL’s Finish Your Degree Scholarship last year, walked across the stage at graduation and took her state nursing exams in February. She announced to the luncheon crowd that she passed those board exams and had a job interview as soon as the event was over.

“To all the generous people who contribute to that scholarship, I want you to know I am proof that your gifts have the power to change lives,” Robinson said. “Thank you.”

More than 200 people cheered. Two days later, Robinson let the university know she was offered the job.

Visit Student Financial Aid for more information on scholarships at UMSL.

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Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel

Eye on UMSL: Sweet ride

Triton Leaders Allison Lendman, Ashley Schauwecker and Cole McWilliams take a seat in the newly wrapped, UMSL-branded red golf cart outside the Millennium Student Center.