As a student teacher to second graders in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Nubia Lumumba is drawing on the skills instilled in her by the teacher education program at Montclair State to tap her students’ potential to learn and grow.
The children come from all over the world and Lumumba embraces their cultural backgrounds, speaking Spanish and delighting a group of girls trying to teach her Portuguese. Her efforts are rewarded by Montclair State, where Lumumba’s academic performance twice earned her scholarships from the foundation of best-selling author James B. Patterson.
The novelist is among the University’s donors who, by removing financial stressors, are helping students like Lumumba work toward their degrees, and to learn and flourish at college. “I don’t like letting people down,” Lumumba says. “If you are going to invest in me, then I have to live up to the expectations you have in me.”
“If you are going to invest in me, then I have to live up to the expectations you have in me.”
Making a difference in the lives of students is at the heart of Soar, The Campaign for Montclair State University, the largest and most ambitious campaign in Montclair State’s 110-year history. More than $60 million has already been given as the University strives to meet its goal of $75 million in private contributions.
The campaign is designed to enhance the University’s ability to provide a vibrant educational environment where students, regardless of their financial means, are challenged and empowered to succeed. Soar also provides faculty members with the resources to conduct groundbreaking research, and for the entire campus community, access to facilities conducive to 21st-century teaching and learning.
President Susan A. Cole says the multitudes of gifts from alumni, foundations, corporations and friends of the University have made possible initiatives that enrich the educational program and contribute to keeping the University affordable for students. “Our students are rich and they are poor; they are homegrown and immigrants; they have been to good schools and to bad; they are all races and religions; and our job is to help each of them flourish, to give them what they need, so that they in turn can be productive and responsive and engaged citizens,” Cole says.
The power of giving
Tom and Lucy Ott epitomize the givers to Montclair State University. They established a philanthropic endowment fund in 1996 in memory of their son, David, a promising journalism major who contracted a devastating brain disease.
Music was always important to him, and as he lived for 17 years with lasting physical disabilities from encephalitis, he listened to all kinds of music, an eclectic mix including BB King, spirituals and Beethoven providing meaning, comfort and strength. David’s Fund supports research, clinical services, and at Montclair State, scholarships for students studying music therapy.
The Otts maintain longtime bonds with the students who benefit from David’s Fund, inviting scholarship alumni each year to break bread and share stories about the healing powers of music. “The dinner is like a family reunion,” says Kristen
O’Grady ’04, clinical director of creative arts therapies at the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center in New York, with everyone seated around the table “united by the generosity of Tom and Lucy.”
Today, when the options of personal savings, parental support and federal and state grants are exhausted, receiving a donor-funded scholarship can be a deciding factor for a bright prospective student to attend or remain in college. For Jordan Brito ’18, the assistance, he says, changed the path of his life.
Growing up, school was always important, his mother made sure of that. She was an immigrant who graduated college summa cum laude and had a successful professional career in Manhattan. She died of cancer when Brito was 13, and his family struggled financially, his father eventually filing for bankruptcy protection. After high school, Brito helped raise a younger sister, worked a variety of jobs, and at age 21 encouraged by a mentor and supported by a scholarship, entered the five-year BS/MS accounting program.
“Scholarship support was definitely life changing for me to continue helping my family and completing what my mother would have wanted for me.”
Brito’s life story, his sponsor Joanne Shershin remarked before she passed away in 2017, is one of determination, strong work ethic and dedication. Brito continued to hold down multiple jobs while a student, graduating this past spring with little student debt and landing a job with the accounting giant Ernst & Young. “Scholarship support was definitely life changing for me to continue helping my family and completing what my mother would have wanted for me,” he says.
Next generation leaders
Patterson, the prolific author and philanthropist, provides scholarship money through the Patterson Family Foundation that supports aspiring teachers and focuses on youth reading and literacy at 22 colleges and universities, including Montclair State.
“We love the teachers who come out of here,” Patterson said in a 2014 interview while on campus as Commencement speaker. “We love how well they are trained to go in and deal with inner-city problems.”
“Our students are rich and they are poor; they are homegrown and immigrants; they have been to good schools and to bad; they are all races and religions; and our job is to help each of them flourish, to give them what they need, so that they in turn can be productive and responsive and engaged citizens.”
Lumumba shares a love of literacy with the novelist. Growing up in Guyana, South America, “there wasn’t a lot of recreational activities or technology, so after school we played or read. And I was a big bookworm. I spent so much time reading, seven books a week,” she recalls. As she works toward her degree in teacher education, she brings to the classroom both her passion for reading and an understanding of the experiences of her students, many adjusting to new lives in America. “Talking with children in their own language makes them feel comfortable and their cultures valued,” Lumumba says.
Her story is just one of thousands recounted as private funding has broadened and deepened the opportunities available at Montclair State. A sampling shows the range of academic studies and aspirations lifted through the generosity of donors. For instance:
- Italian Studies have been transformed through the gifts from Lawrence R. Inserra Jr. Given in honor of Inserra’s parents, an endowed chair is held by Teresa Fiore, one of the world’s top scholars in Italian immigration.
- The support of the John J. Cali Family provides scholarships for musicians and students in the arts. Students studying vocal music and musical theatre have benefited from the gifts of Kay Consales in honor of her husband Gene Consales ’50.
- A creative talent award winner, Trevor Stephney, a sophomore working on his BFA in Filmmaking, believes in the power of political art. “What I want is to address world issues with visuals you will never forget, change the world one frame at the time, all through the perspective of an everyday kid from Morristown,” he says. The creative talent award is made possible by gifts from multiple donors to the College of the Arts and is intended to attract and retain exceptionally talented students to the program.
- Matthew Berg’s curiosity with dictionaries from around the world helped him at an early age to learn basic vocabulary in a variety of world languages. Today, the senior and Conrad J. Schmitt Scholarship winner aspires to earn a PhD in Latin American Literature and become a university professor.
- Candise Maiore went back to school after 20 years to study nursing, a career-changer from accounting after finding true purpose when a family member was hospitalized. “I’ve found my calling,” Maiore says. “The scholarship help has made all of this possible.”
Maiore’s story was highlighted at last spring’s Annual Scholarship Dinner, which raises funds for student scholarships and honors prominent philanthropic leaders. Assistance came from the McMullen Family Foundation, which has supported the University in a variety of ways, providing operating funds for the George Segal Gallery, scholarships for students at the John J. Cali School of Music, and, most recently, scholarships to help registered nurses like Maiore pursue their Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees at the University’s new School of Nursing.
Soar takes flight
Private donations annually fund scholarships for more than 700 students at Montclair State. The support covers a fraction of the nearly 13,000 students who qualify for financial aid at the University. The Soar campaign aims to significantly increase both the number of students supported and average award given.
In addition to students needing financial support, the University provides scholarships to keep high-achieving New Jersey students in state. This fall, the University welcomed its first class of Presidential Scholars who each will receive a merit-based scholarship worth up to $20,000 over four years. The cohort includes Carla Ko, an accounting major who says being part of the Presidential Scholars is a highlight of her first year on campus. “I thoroughly enjoy being a part of something new that not only enhances my education,” Ko says, “but also creates a network of connections and friendships, building a real sense of community within itself.”
Fundraising continues to increase efforts to attract top faculty and ensure they have the resources to conduct research that addresses today’s most pressing issues. Other initiatives will ensure the entire campus community has access to state-of-the-art facilities.
The largest philanthropic gift in the history of Montclair State, an anonymous $20 million donation, supports the Feliciano School of Business. Other campaign gifts have benefited the development of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship, the Ellyn A. McColgan Student Services Center for academic career advising and the James W. Merli Executive Conference Center. AJ Khubani ’84 inspires aspiring student entrepreneurs by funding New Jersey’s richest collegiate prize pool for promising business ideas.
Donations large and small have been put to work in essential programs, including providing students with emergency assistance, including food at the Red Hawk Pantry. The Emergency Scholarship Fund helps fill gaps in a student’s ability to pay tuition and the Emergency Book Fund helps to purchase academic texts.
Last spring, the grandmother of Elizabeth Lagrotteria, a senior Biology Education major, found a scholarship ceremony poignant as the family’s experience at Montclair State went full circle. Lagrotteria was receiving the S. Marie Kuhnen Scholarship, which celebrates the legacy of Marie Kuhnen ’41, former chair of the Department of Biology, a professor Lagrotteria’s grandmother fondly remembers for inspiring a lifelong love of nature while she was a student.
Now, her granddaughter, also filled with a love of the life sciences, would soon begin her clinical experience as a teacher of biology. The scholarship, says Lagrotteria, who works two jobs to help pay tuition, “reaffirms that the University recognizes all that I do.”
Speaking at the annual Red Hawk Open golf outing, which raises money for athletic teams, George Alexandris, a senior who last spring won the national long jump title, summed up the gratitude of all the students encouraged to spread their wings and fly. “Montclair State has truly changed my life, my perspective and happiness,” he said.
When hosting their annual dinners, Tom and Lucy Ott invite David’s Fund alumni to take turns talking about their work. “They are invested in hearing what everybody is a part of,” says O’Grady, who in addition to her work with seriously ill children serves as vice president of the American Music Therapy Association Board of Directors. “It seems meaningful to Tom and Lucy to hear how people progress in their profession and career, and that they played a role in that.”
“It’s been a wonderful learning experience for us, and to have scholarships given in memory of our son, we feel we are benefiting as much as we are benefiting others.”
As music soothed their son through his illness, the Otts say they have found comfort in their relationships with the scholarship recipients who heal through music. “It’s been a wonderful learning experience for us,” says Lucy Ott, “and to have scholarships given in memory of our son, we feel we are benefiting as much as we are benefiting others.”