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As part of a small audience at a Governors State University luncheon to honor prize-winning writers, I listened intently as a young woman read an excerpt from her autobiographical writing. Her tone seemed somewhat distant, contemplative really, as though she engaged more with her words than with her audience. Fragments of the past, raw elements of the narrative, seemed to move her. I followed every word and was stirred by every mood shift.

Because my wife, Elaine, the president of the college, and I had funded the prize, the student's uncompromising story had special resonance. We hoped we'd had some part in encouraging that deeply affecting introspection. Without motivation to compete for an award, would she have confronted those episodes and the feelings they generated, or instead isolated them as fragments of history best left dormant? Another more speculative question also had no conclusive answer. If she hadn't probed this residue of the past, would the avoidance have resulted in long-term consequences, both for her and for the society she's preparing to enter? Uncertain as those answers were, I felt instinctively that self-understanding had been a product of her writing and would benefit her future.

Being with Elaine during the 22 years she's headed university campuses, I've been involved informally in tutoring students in writing, public speaking and preparation for leadership. Those relationships have enriched my campus perceptions immeasurably. I've been particularly affected by working with first-generation college students. Until our collaboration, I never fully realized how complex their continuous efforts must be to attain fulfillment -- a goal demanding intense commitment bolstered by durability.

Because we're able to do so, Elaine and I try to help make some of these journeys less arduous, less uncertain. In recent years, we've concentrated philanthropic involvement on a growing cohort, the New Majority, a designation that expands the conventional image of college students. This group includes traditional-aged students, who, despite latent promise, once regarded college education as an unattainable dream. It also numbers older learners whose initial quests for degrees became sidetracked for non-academic reasons. In addition, it involves veterans of the military, many newly aware of growth possibilities available through higher education.

Plainly, these students deserve attention and support. The obstacles they encounter too frequently prove overwhelming. Those obstacles include, most obviously, financial constraints. But they also involve other impediments less overt, like persistent self-doubt, a consequence of backgrounds deficient in positive reinforcement. And even less recognized, some students face food and housing insecurity, a euphemistic way of saying they're often hungry and, sometimes, essentially homeless.

While I don't know specifics of their situations, I do know their earning college degrees requires a marathon endeavor which, if completed, will transform their lives and, in a meaningful way, the lives of those who commit to helping them.

Sometimes I wonder whether, facing their challenges, I'd have had the determination to persist as they've done. Would I have even started so daunting a pursuit or simply resigned myself to a less imaginative future? While the question no longer requires an answer, considering it helps explain why Elaine and I have increased efforts to assist students facing such deterrents.

We concentrate our investments in three areas. First, because we're aware of the inestimable value of competent writing, we fund prizes encouraging its mastery. Second, we contribute to scholarships for students in Governors State University's renowned dual-degree program, which facilitates seamless transitions from community college degrees to bachelor's degrees. Third, we assist funding of Presidential Scholarships, four-year undergraduate awards without which recipients, each promising students, probably wouldn't attend college at all.

Elaine and I are reinforced in our efforts by hearing our students' stories. One student who first attained an associate degree from one of our university's partner community colleges and then completed a bachelor's degree in early childhood education (two -- dual -- degrees) was motivated to make life better for future generations of his family. He kept pushing because he knew he could do it. He now mentors students, trying to inspire them to see beyond their immediate circumstances by envisioning positive, productive futures. Another student who is preparing to work with children with learning disabilities is determined to give back for the educational benefits she has received. Her awareness so early in her career of satisfactions deriving from reciprocity is particularly heartening. A third student is motivated to empower other students to make positive changes in their communities. These students encourage our hopes. Because they have dedicated themselves to reaching out to others, they are harbingers of the future we desire.

Frankly, I'm uncomfortable writing about personal philanthropy. This account isn't, to tinker with Norman Mailer's playful title from long ago, an advertisement for ourselves. I value greatly my sense of privacy. I suspend it now for an urgent reason. I'd like to convince others in higher education administration with the ability to do so to consider joining us in supporting students in need. This is the time to become involved. Our present national mood requires that we respond to the importance of building numbers of our citizenry capable of engaging in critical thinking and then acting on its product. This imperative pertains not only to political climate but also to the diverse challenges of daily life. Progressing toward this goal will help reduce societal contaminants like superficial reactions, intellectual lethargy and surrender to the loudest and the worst.

Helping endow prizes and scholarships affirms our desire for and commitment to a future that can be shaped judiciously rather than left to chance. We do what we can afford to do. What we can't afford is to do nothing.

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