The formal reception begins awkwardly for students: scanning name tags, hunting for place cards at banquet tables, feeling stiff and overdressed without the usual breezy jeans and flip-flops. But pressed slacks and collared shirts, or spring dresses and high heels, make it easier to see who they will soon become: bright college graduates embarking on promising careers.
Southern Oregon University hosted a May 10 gathering for 135 scholarship recipients to meet the benefactors helping to make their academic ambitions reality. For many donors and recipients, it was the first chance to share their stories.
Each year, Southern Oregon University's Foundation gives an average of $660,000 in scholarships. Multiply that amount by the thousands of colleges and universities around the country, and you begin to realize the impact that academic scholarships have on the nation.
As Sylvia Kelley, executive director of the SOU Foundation points out, "scholarships don't just change a student's life, they change their family's lives. They change the lives of the next generation."
Memorial scholarships are particularly meaningful, transforming pain into new possibilities.
Sarah Kassel, donor-relations coordinator, describes such scholarships as "a legacy of love and learning ... gifts, not so much from the pocket, as from the heart."
College and university foundation offices offer a range of options for those considering scholarships donations and bequests.
Some of the stories are particularly poignant as memorial-scholarship donors meet the young people moving forward in the names of their loved ones.
While spring is the good-news season for successful scholarship applicants, it's a painful season for Sandra Coyner and her husband, Joseph Graf. Professors Coyner and Graf retired from Southern Oregon University in 2008, the year their son, Coyner Bayley Graf, died suddenly on Easter at the age of 23, most likely from a seizure.
"Certain times of year are harder," explains Graf. "We have this run of days from the day of his death, his birthday, Mother's Day and Father's Day."
"On Mother's Day every year, you've had a child say 'I love you.' Then you don't, and you wonder if you are still a mother," adds Coyner. Coyner and Graf were pleased to have their son attend the university where they taught. After earning an American Chemical Society honors degree in biochemistry in 2006, Coyner Bayley Graf worked in the pharmaceutical field in San Diego.
Even as his parents were flying to San Diego after his death, they were considering a memorial scholarship.
"When we flew down to make arrangements, we talked about a scholarship," says Graf. "He loved chemistry so much and did really well at SOU. It was a given almost from the get-go."
The first recipient of the Coyner Bayley Graf Scholarship is James Robertson, 32, a fifth-year student majoring in chemistry. While completing his degree, Robertson has been conducting research isolating compounds found in the Oregon grape plant. A European relative of the plant has been shown to contain cancer-fighting properties.
"I was shocked and excited and happy to hear I got the scholarship," says Robertson. "It paid for my full tuition this year. Before that, I was using loans and grants and working as a desk clerk at two hotels.
"It freed me up to focus on my studies, concentrate on school rather than work while going to school. That was really big because I was applying to grad school, which takes time."
Coyner and Graf were gratified to hear that Robertson has been accepted into the doctorate program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
"James is a great guy," says Graf. "He's exactly the kind of student we wanted to support. Coyner always loved research, so James was just perfect."
Robertson acknowledges the difficult emotions associated with receiving a memorial scholarship.
"It was a sad story to lose someone that young. I feel really grateful that they decided to set up this scholarship in his name. I'm just very thankful. ... It's been an honor, and it kind of helped me keep on track, kept me from slacking off, because I don't want to let them down."
Like Robertson, Torrey Johnson's SOU studies were dramatically altered by a scholarship. Johnson, 22, received the William B. and Patricia D. Smullin Scholarship, enabling him to study outdoor-adventure leadership in Australia and New Zealand this winter and spring.
Johnson got goose bumps when he heard the news.
"One of the first things I thought was 'I can study abroad now!' I had been trying to find a way I could do this amazing travel-study program. The largest obstacle was how I was going to pay for it."
Radio and television pioneer William Smullin established California-Oregon Broadcasting. He and wife Patricia created the Smullin Trust Fund in 1988 and a family foundation in 1990 that supports six college-scholarship programs in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
"Recipients have always come from counties in which Dad broadcast, investing in students from areas where the broadcast revenue was earned," explains his daughter, Carol Ann Smullin Brown, executive director of the Smullin Family Foundation in Berkeley, Calif.
"Education was really important to Dad. He was the first in his family to receive a college education. He wanted to make that possible for others. ... Mother believed that educating our population was critical. They were just very strong believers in that."
Brown relishes her work.
"It's been a real treat. The interaction has always been an honor. I love hearing about the students and knowing who they are. It's just a great privilege."
"The Smullin scholarship changed everything by opening up and expanding my education," says Johnson. "It made it possible for me to undergo an immensely rewarding educational study-travel experience. I hope that the Smullins can see that their family has impacted my life in wonderful ways."
Losing a loved one changes a life forever. Turning that loss into a memorial scholarship becomes a life-changing gift for a student building a future, a gift that adds meaning to both the donor's loss and the recipient's accomplishments.
"It's a way to have somebody live forever," says Graf. "A hundred years from now, somebody will know about Coyner Bayley Graf. This is a way that Coyner will always be remembered."