From start to finish: Alumni Association Scholarship paves the way for students in financial need

Started by alumni for students more than three decades ago, the Alumni Association Scholarship has grown into into a substantial fund with immense impact

Editor’s note: The students included in this story are referenced by only their first name, college, and year by their request.

In 1991, three UC Santa Cruz Alumni Council members—Steven Jung (Stevenson ’78, politics), Rob Sawyer (Porter '72, music), and Marnie Bodek (Cowell '74, environmental studies/environmental design)—saw a gap that needed to be filled to support students. Each of them gave $600 to establish the Alumni Association Scholarship Fund (AASF)

Now, over 30 years later, their modest initial donations, along with gifts from contributors along the way, have grown into a substantial legacy. The AASF has an endowment of almost $3.5 million and supports nearly 50 students every year. 

“We hope that the extra money provided by the scholarships will give the recipients some financial peace of mind and allow them to excel at their studies,” Jung said. “I don’t think we dared hope that our fellow alumni and parents would respond the way they have. Thank you to all of them. That we now have an endowment of almost $3.5 million and are giving out so many scholarships is just astounding.” 

The AASF supports high-achieving students working hard to earn their degrees while navigating financial hardship. Every student selected receives an annual award of $3,000 until they graduate, as long as they maintain a good academic standing.

In 2024, the Alumni Association awarded 18 new scholarships—nine first years and nine transfer students—in addition to the 28 students who renewed their scholarships, supporting a total of 46 students. 

Juan (Merrill ’27) was awarded the Alumni Association Scholarship in January 2024. 

“As a dedicated student in mathematics and linguistics, I am profoundly grateful for the Alumni Association Scholarship, which is instrumental in making my academic journey possible,” he said. “Your generous support not only alleviates financial burdens but also fuels my ambition to excel and graduate in 2027.”

Rob Sawyer, one of the founders of the AASF, hopes that the scholarship not only helps current students, but also provides a pathway for alumni to feel connected to the university experience. 

Student applications for the scholarship are reviewed by a committee of alumni councilors and volunteers every year. 

Alumni Councilor Abel Mkulama (M.S. ’21, coastal science and policy) was part of the committee that chose this year’s Alumni Association Scholarship recipients. While a graduate student, Mkulama received a scholarship to attain his degree and believes in the transformative power scholarships can have on students. Motivated by his personal experience with scholarships, Mkulama frequently donates to the AASF.

“I firmly believe that every scholarship, regardless of its size, has the potential to create lifelong impacts for individuals, opening doors to education and opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach,” Mkulama said. “By giving back to the fund, I hope to pay forward the invaluable assistance I received, enabling future scholars to pursue their dreams and achieve their full potential.”

He is grateful to have been a part of the committee that helped choose scholarship recipients this year. 

“Being part of the committee that chose scholarship recipients was an enlightening and fulfilling experience,” he said. “It provided me with valuable insights into the challenges students face on campus and the diverse range of needs within the student community, and how engaged alumni can help alleviate some of those challenges.

Philanthropic gifts like the AASF play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of students' success by providing crucial resources, scholarships, and opportunities, fostering an environment where educational aspirations can flourish unencumbered by financial constraints.

“Thank you so much for awarding me with the Alumni Association Scholarship this year,” said Anson (John R. Lewis ’27), a student who received the scholarship in January 2024. “It helps me immensely financially and helps contribute to my academic success and goals.” 

Executive Director of Alumni Engagement Shayna Kent reflected on the AASF’s history, saying she is appreciative of those who have contributed to its exponential growth over the past three-plus decades. 

“It is amazing to see the long-term impact that a group of dedicated alumni can make,” Kent said. “More than 30 years ago, the volunteer board of the Alumni Association took it upon themselves to start a scholarship with $600 each that first year. This has now grown to having served over 800 students with more than $1 million in scholarship support. That endowment now supports between 40 and 50 students annually with a $3,000 scholarship they can depend on every year until they graduate. We are immensely grateful not only to the alumni who started this fund, but also to every person who has ever contributed since.” 

Eric Thomas Memorial Award

Each year, one student chosen to receive an Alumni Association Scholarship is also named the recipient of the Eric Thomas Memorial Award.  

Established in 2004, this honorary award is given to the student who best reflects the spirit of Eric Thomas, a beloved former UCSC Alumni Association President who died suddenly in 2004. Thomas (Oakes '85, economics) offered a helping hand to whoever needed one. He was a leader who embraced and symbolized key takeaways from the UCSC experience: making the world a better place one small act at a time, and having a good time doing it. A scholarship recipient who best reflects Thomas's spirit receives the honor.

Barbara Oden, associate director of volunteer programs and alumni recognition, expressed gratitude to all those who have given to the Alumni Association Scholarship and Eric Thomas Memorial Award over the years. 

"From the very first alumni councilors who gave the first gifts in 1991 to the person who just made their first gift to this scholarship, you should feel immense pride in knowing your gifts make a BIG difference in the lives of UCSC students,” she said. “You are lightening their load and reminding them they are not alone. Your generosity provides money for basic needs like gas and groceries, but also for educational opportunities they might not have been able to access otherwise—and maybe that needed cup of coffee. Thank you all!"

If you are interested in making a meaningful impact, consider making a gift to the UCSC Alumni Association Scholarship Fund, empowering future generations of students to achieve their academic aspirations. If you would like to volunteer to help select the next group of AASF recipients, please complete the Alumni Volunteer Interest Form.
If you have any questions, please contact the Alumni Association