In a postbellum North Carolina in 1875, war veteran and Wake Forest student James Denmark deeply valued education but was concerned with the cost by which so many around him were burdened.
He established the oldest college loan fund program in the U.S. by gathering faculty, townspeople of Wake Forest and other students to provide scholarship for those in need.
The same spirit was present in Porter B. Byrum, a proud Demon Deacon and self-proclaimed “Wake Forest man,” whose lifetime giving to Wake Forest totaled over $120 million after his passing earlier this year.
Today, of the 30 percent of students on Wake Forest’s campus who receive need-based scholarships and grants from the University, it is difficult to see a greater blessing than the gift they have received. The past few weeks, these students have been taking part in various thank you note writing sessions.
Sitting in Farrell Hall with the afternoon sun warming the room, students write on clean, white notecards addressed to the individuals who have donated money to their scholarships. Many have faces of thought, many have faces of resolution and many have faces of sheer gratitude. The difficult thing of writing these thank you notes is that it is hard to write on such a small card how much something so big means.
“I’m most grateful for my scholarship because I can get a world-class education here without having any kind of burden on my family or myself,” said freshman Riyan Deria, a Gordon Scholar. “I feel really lucky because I can go through my four years here without having to worry about that.”
Deria was on a bus to New York City when she got the email. She squealed, attracting the attention of the friends around her. They congratulated her on the scholarship, knowing that she had wanted it badly. Deria called her mom and dad, who were obviously excited and proud.
“I was always interested in Wake Forest, and I knew the only way I’d be able to come here is if I got a really significant amount of money,” Deria said. “So [the scholarship] was the deciding factor between Wake Forest and another school. It was so hard to believe.”
For many receiving need-based scholarship, the financial aid package was what made the difference.
“Without need-based scholarships I would not be able to attend Wake Forest due to the cost,” said Andy Killebrew after filling out his thank you note.
The magnitude of this gift is realized by many students simply in the way they treat their experience at Wake Forest. Abi Udaiyar, a Reynolds Scholar, is humbled that Wake Forest saw something in him that other colleges didn’t.
“Every time I walk on this campus, I’m grateful to be here,” Udaiyar said. “This is an opportunity.”
Some see it as a responsibility to respect the aid they have been given.
“Someone’s paying it forward for me,” Killebrew said. “I feel sort of indebted to do the best I can in my schoolwork and live up to that.”
Pinned up on the wall of Scholarship Coordinator Elizabeth Sandy’s office is a postcard of Wake Forest — a beautiful golden-hour photograph of campus. On the back of this postcard is a note from a Wake Forest alumna. In the note, she thanks Sandy for her financial guidance throughout her four years at Wake Forest.
Most notably, the alumna was writing on behalf of a special occasion. She, after graduating from Wake Forest and securing a job with her degree, was able to make her first donation to the university.
So, it comes full circle.
Giving is more blessed than receiving, as Byrum said. And, right now, students give all they can, hand-writing notes to give thanks to the donors who have radically altered their life’s path.
It is not about the numbers or the forms. And it is not about the recognition. It is about giving — giving an education, giving an experience and giving thanks.