John and Tashia Morgridge addressed the 138 students from UW-Whitewater who were honored with Fund for Wisconsin Scholars grants at a reception April 12. The Fund is a private non-profit that was established through a $175-million gift from Morgridges. (Tom Ganser photo)

By Tom Ganser

Correspondent

More than 50 recipients of Fund for Wisconsin Scholars grants from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater were treated to a sit-down luncheon April 12 where the real dessert for the meal was a chance to hear from and meet John P. and Tashia F. Morgridge.

In 2007 the Morgridges created a permanent endowment to provide needs-based grants for eligible, talented graduates with a founding gift of more than $175 million to the University of Wisconsin System colleges and universities and Wisconsin technical colleges with the goal of “helping ensure that higher education is accessible and affordable.”

Carol Miller, UW-Whitewater Financial Aid Director, reported that this year 149 UW-Whitewater students received Fund for Wisconsin Scholars grants totaling $495,250. The grants are for $3,500 a year and are renewable for five years if students maintain satisfactory academic progress, for a total of $17.500.

To meet the requirements for the grants, students must have Wisconsin residency, a diploma or high school equivalency diploma from a Wisconsin public high school within the past three years, be younger than 21, in a first degree program unless moving from or to an associate degree or bachelor’s program, full time enrollment in a UW System college or university or a Wisconsin technical college, being a Pell Grant recipient and having remaining unmet financial need.

This year UW-Whitewater also received $52,800 from the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars foundation that were distributed as a stipend to 97 additional UWW students.

“The Morgridges’ generosity has assisted students whose personal and family resources are not adequate to cover the expenses involved in attending UWW,” Miller said.

“In many cases,” Miller explained, “the students have been able to keep the amount borrowed from loans as low as possible. Also, students have been able to reduce the number of hours worked to finance their education so that they may spend more time on their academics.”

At the luncheon, Chancellor Richard J. Telfer said, “In the five years during which the foundation has been awarding grants, the foundation has distributed nearly $2 million just to UWW students.”

In addition to thanking the Morgridges for their generous support of students, Telfer also remarked that “maybe more important … is your interest in how our students are doing.”

Addressing the students present, Telfer said “It’s important that you see the folks who are behind the scholarships that you get.”

Caitlin Schroeder, a 2008 graduate of Fort Atkinson High School, is on track to graduate from UWW next month with a degree in accounting and finance, and was one of two students selected to speak at the luncheon.

“Being awarded a Fund for Wisconsin Scholars [grant] has not only allowed me to substantially decrease the amount of loans that I have incurred, but it’s also given me the time to be involved in organizations that have allowed me to further develop my leadership and professional skills,” Schroeder said. “These are skills that not only help me to succeed today, but they will definitely help me to accomplish my goals in the years following graduation.”

Brody Fiedler, a 2011 graduate of Whitewater High School, is currently a sophomore at UWW majoring in criminal justice and hoping to pursue a career in law enforcement at the local or county level “to give back to the community.”

“This scholarship has been huge to me,” Fiedler said at the luncheon.  “It’s also given me the opportunity to enroll in other classes.  I’m currently in an EMT class so I can be part of the volunteer fire department. With this continued support I hope to be able to enroll in other classes and be an active member of my community.”

Maria Vera-Duran, a 2010 WHS graduate, was also among the grant recipients.   She is a junior at UWW majoring in Environmental Science with an emphasis in Natural Resources Management.

“I feel honored to be part of this scholarship and in addition I work very hard semester after semester to truly deserve such a great opportunity.  Thank you to all the sponsors that with their generosity are helping me to construct a better future and reach my dreams and goals,” Vera-Duran said.

The highlight of the event for the students was the chance to meet John and Tashia Morgridge.

With a twinkle in his eye and the gentle kindliness of a father and grandfather, John Morgridge said, “Make the old guy feel happy.  Come to school. Stay in school.  Graduate.”

“And then just one other thing,” he added.  “And that is, when you get an opportunity, do a charitable act of kindness for someone.  Repay the debt that you have to this broad community of ours.  If you do those two things, we’ll have met our goad and we’ll be very satisfied.”

A very usual aspect of the grants is that students do not apply for them and may not even know about the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars program until receiving notification that they have been awarded a grant.

Tashia Morgridge shared that many students “did not expect the gift of this scholarship” and that “many of them had called to make sure that it wasn’t a scam of some kind.”

Tashia told the students her own story about a “very unexpected gift” that contributed to her and John’s motivation to create the foundation.

Many years ago on a shopping trip with three squirming toddlers, Tashia was struggling to find money in her purse for a parking meter when a stranger walked up, put money in the meter and walked away.

Tashia said, “Thank you,” and asked, “Why did you do that?”

The woman turned back to Tashia and all she said was, “Now, you owe someone a favor.”

“You’re already giving us a favor by being here, by working hard, by staying in school and by graduating.  That is one way to do us a favor,” Tashia said.

“But the other way to do us a favor is to remember that this was a gift to you.  It is a gift of five years of college, if you need it.  It is a gift that I want you to remember, and now you owe someone a favor.”

Following the meal, John and Tashia Morgridge met all the students to learn a little bit about their lives and their educational and career aspirations.

Meeting with the students was at least as special for the Morgridges as it was for the students – and maybe even more so.