FEATURES • Fall 2001

 

Created to pay tribute to devoted WU citizens William H. and Elizabeth Gray Danforth and their lives of service, the Danforth Scholars program attracts students with exceptional qualities of character—ones with extraordinary integrity, a willingness to take on leadership roles, and an uncommon commitment to building community.

By Betsy Rogers

Hope for the future—this is what the Washington University Danforth Scholars embody, according to James E. McLeod, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. "They don't leave room for pessimism," he says.

"These students are at the leading edge," says Sharon Stahl, associate dean of Arts & Sciences, who works closely with the scholars. "They will forge new frontiers. They have a real vision for their lives."

This cohort of 32 students, representing all eight schools in graduate and undergraduate divisions, inspires such confidence not just because of their academic competencies, though they are exceptional students. More particularly, they exemplify leadership, service, personal integrity, and generosity of spirit, according to Stahl.

With its first students in fall 1998, the Danforth Scholars program was established by gifts from friends of William H. and Elizabeth Gray ("Ibby") Danforth when Bill Danforth retired as chancellor of the University in 1995 after serving for 24 years. Grateful for the Danforths' compelling example of selfless service, several trustees—including William M. Van Cleve, J.D. '53; Lee M. Liberman, M.L.A. '94; and wife of trustee Stephen F. Brauer, Camilla T. Brauer—led an effort to use the commemorative gifts to foster those same qualities in rising generations.

"A lot of people saw in Bill and Ibby the qualities that would make the world a better place," notes Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. "In this group of scholars, we're looking for that uncommon commitment to community, an extraordinary integrity, the willingness to take on leadership roles but without grandstanding. We are trying to develop a group of Danforth Scholars who will amplify in a dramatic way the lives of the two great people we honor."

It's true, Wrighton emphasizes, that the University has high expectations of all its students. As the University has become increasingly competitive among the nation's top schools, the caliber of the student body and the level of involvement outside the classroom also have risen. "We're working consistently with a very talented group of students overall," he observes. "This program, however, brings together a few who share exceptional qualities."

 
Jill Downen, M.F.A. '01, studied sculpture and was active in the community service group, Each One Teach One.

The ability to "leverage" exceptional qualities of character, to expand the already-dramatic impact of the Danforths' lives across time and space, is a unique aspect of the program, according to McLeod. "This program can have a very long life," he asserts. "Its legacy and its value can reach across generations. You start in one place, and, even though the program stays here, its impact goes with the student. Therein is the power of these efforts."

MAKING AN IMPACT

Neither the Danforths' example nor the University's commitment to these qualities of character is lost on the scholars. Suzanne Thompson, Class of '03, a political science major from Hope, Arkansas, who has visited with the Danforths at dinner gatherings, spoke of their "incredible impact" on her and on the wider community. Thompson, a member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, works on projects ranging from planting trees to tutoring youngsters to volunteering at Shriners Hospital.

 
Suzanne Thompson (left), Class of '03, is studying political science in Arts & Sciences. A member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, she works on projects ranging from planting trees to tutoring children to volunteering at Shriners Hospital. John Pelikan, Class of '03, is studying finance and management at the Olin School of Business. He is a member of Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity, and he participates in service projects throughout the year.

 

The University's initiative has made an impression as well. "It's great to see a scholarship like this," observes Carolyn Moore, Class of '03, a civil engineering major from Spokane, Washington, "and to know that leadership and involvement in the community have the support of Washington University." To say that Moore is "involved" is an understatement: she took part in every club her high school offered and played on two traveling soccer teams. Here, she is finance director of the Residential Hall Association and works tirelessly with the Sierra Student Coalition and Green Action.

The intention to seek out and nurture these personal attributes is one thing that sets the program apart, according to Wrighton. "The other is the character of the group itself," he continues. "It isn't focused on any one school or any particular academic level. It's University-wide, and here's what makes it absolutely unique: The program involves students at all levels—those starting their first year and those in programs leading to the highest degree in their fields.

"To me, that provides opportunities for the younger members to learn about some of the fields they may engage in later, and for the older ones opportunities to develop capabilities as mentors and advisers."

The younger scholars clearly appreciate the mentoring. "I really enjoy keeping up with the scholars through the monthly dinners and service projects that we participate in together," Moore says. "It's nice to catch up, especially with the graduate students-there's a lot to learn from them about managing scholarship and leadership."

 
Alan Harzman, M.D. '01, helped oversee the Saturday Neighborhood Health Center, a student-run free clinic.

A COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS

The undergraduate scholars are nominated by high school counselors, principals, teachers, University alumni from around the world, and other friends of the University. Once nominated, prospective students are invited to apply for the scholarship. Whereas with the graduate scholars, the University's graduate schools name them. Transfer students also are eligible: For example, Toyin Idowu of Princeton, New Jersey, came to the University as a sophomore from the University of Akron. Idowu is a biology major and pre-med student who works in the lab of Robert W. Mercer, associate professor of cell biology and physiology at the School of Medicine.

Nominees typically have been active in their religious communities, officeholders in school, captains of sports teams, and highly accomplished academically.

Their credentials are dazzling, McLeod says. "It's a very strong pool of applicants, and it's widespread—men and women, from all parts of the country, with diverse academic interests." (There were 3,000 applications for 18 scholarships last year.)

"It's attracted some very exciting people," Wrighton notes. "We see a talent pool that would justify a larger financial commitment to the program." The University hopes ultimately to expand the program to about 120 scholars, he adds.

 
Tavi Yehudai, B.S.B.A. '01, studied international business in the Olin School of Business, and German and history in Arts & Sciences. He also served on various service committees.

 

When accepted, the students receive full or partial scholarships, enabling them to pursue dreams that might otherwise remain unrealized. "As a working artist," says Jill Downen, M.F.A. '01, who studied sculpture at the School of Art, "the financial support of the scholarship meant the fulfillment of my lifetime goal to earn the highest degree in my field. After 10 years in the workforce, I was able to return to school, study a discipline new to me (my B.F.A. is in painting), and challenge all that I knew and practiced as an artist. The School of Art and the sculpture department in particular have changed my life."

And beyond receiving aid, these students become part of an unusual community of scholars, which hones their thinking, nurtures their best impulses, and helps them forge links outside the usual residential and academic circles.

These links are important to the students. "The program is special," Downen says, "in bringing together diverse students who are all moving in different directions with their studies and interests, yet who are united in a commitment to service and reaching out to others." Downen was active in the Each One Teach One outreach project, where University students go into city schools and tutor and mentor city youngsters.

Developing this community of scholars begins when the students first arrive on campus. First-year Danforth Scholars attend the University's weekly Assembly Series lectures, then regroup in the evening for discussion, typically with a guest from the faculty or the St. Louis community who is knowledgeable about the lecture's topic. Professor James W. Davis, a widely respected veteran of the Department of Political Science in Arts & Sciences, met with the group to discuss a lecture given by political satirist Al Franken, for instance.

The evening sessions have proven to be very popular, according to Sarah Fields, postdoctoral fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences, who works with the program. "They're meeting with University people they might not otherwise," she notes, "and discussing research interests and classes they might never know about." Fields says the conversations are lively and engaging. "They challenge one another. They have such a wide range of views."

The scholars have other opportunities to be together. Three times a semester the entire cohort has dinner at Stahl's home. In the fall, Wrighton hosts a reception for the scholars at Whittemore House, and the new group has dinner with him and the Danforths at Harbison House, the chancellor's residence. Last spring, the program added a new element: During Commencement week, there was a luncheon for graduating scholars and their families.

Like the students themselves, Stahl places great value on the community fostered among the scholars. "One of the really important things revealed in this program," she observes, "is that if you give students a sense of community, it helps them extend beyond even their own expectations. It gives them an anchor and an identity, a base, a sense of home," from which they are willing to reach and stretch to live out their vision for their lives.

Dallas Wells, Class of '03, a finance and marketing major at the Olin School of Business, who has volunteered on behalf of children, youth sports, the homeless, and cancer patients, agrees. "The most advantageous part of the program," he asserts, "is the opportunity to interact with such a dynamic and diverse group of people with their own talents, interests, and perspectives. Interacting with this group has definitely opened my eyes to new things and new ideas."

Stahl, whom the scholars consistently single out as a powerful role model and inspiration in their lives, finds her own inspiration in them. "Every single one of these scholars," she says, "will make a difference in the community in which they live, in the lives of the people with whom they interact. It is a privilege to work with them."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

 

 

Left: William H. and Elizabeth Gray Danforth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The most advantageous part of the program is the opportunity to interact with such a dynamic and diverse group of people ... . Interacting with this group has definitely opened my eyes to new things and new ideas." -Dallas Wells, Class of '03