She grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in south Philadelphia, raised by a single mother who worked long hours in a drapery factory. As a child, Grace Venters Speights was surrounded by poverty, homelessness and gang warfare.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, she set her sights on law school, without a clue how she would pay for it. When the acceptance letters came in, only one school offered her a scholarship: the George Washington University.
“That offer was a life-changer,” said Ms. Speights, J.D. ’82, who established the Grace Venters Speights Endowed Law Scholarship Fund at GW last year. Today, she is a managing partner at Morgan Lewis. “It was for all of these reasons that I endowed a scholarship at the law school. This is my way of paying GW back.”
Scholarships, Ms. Speights said Friday night at GW’s annual Power & Promise dinner, provide the opportunities and foundation for student success. Established in 2009 by George Washington President Steven Knapp, Power & Promise helps lower the cost of a GW education and reduce loan burdens of graduates by providing scholarships to qualified students, regardless of financial resources. The fund—part of GW’s commitment to support students, one of the key pillars of Making History: The Campaign for GW—has raised more than $120 million in scholarships and fellowships since 2009.
“Whenever I’m asked what impressed me most when I came to this institution, I always give the same answer: It’s our students,” Dr. Knapp said. “It’s the energy, the inventiveness, the creativity, the entrepreneurial spirit they bring to our campus. Our students come to this great capital city, and they begin to dive into the life’s work they see ahead of them, and they do that with an extraordinary amount of dedication and commitment.”
That commitment, he said, is supported by donors, including Ms. Speights, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. In total, GW provided more than $160 million in undergraduate assistance during the 2013-14 academic year. Nearly two-thirds of all undergraduate students at the university receive need- or merit-based financial assistance.
More than 300 donors, students, trustees and staff attended Friday’s event, representing a host of academic and professional disciplines. Speakers included several student scholarship recipients—a rocket scientist and a swimmer with a 4.0 GPA—and an executive for a major hotel chain. At a table in the back of the room, two Scottish Rites Fellowship recipients swapped stories about their GW experiences. Haley Bryant is an archivist and is pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology, Ali Hale is a freshman international affairs major from Boston, who speaks fluent Chinese and works at the National Security Archive.
In a speech filled with humor and anecdotes, aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate Joseph Lukas, a recipient of the Douglas L. Jones Endowed Mechanical Engineering Graduate Fellowship in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, challenged the audience to look at the world in a different way.
“I did a Ph.D., not for the money, but because I love learning,” said Mr. Lukas, who is part of a team sending two satellites into space this year. “Because of you, I’m achieving a childhood dream of mine—I get to change the way I see the world by sending a satellite into space. How will you change the way you see the world?”
That perspective is one shared by scholarship recipients and donors alike. As her children reached their teenage years, Denise Dombay, B.A. ’88, began thinking of how to reconnect with her alma mater. A former member of the GW swim team and a senior finance business partner at Marriott International, Ms. Dombay joined the School of Business Board of Advisors and later created the Dombay Family Scholarship, which supports an undergraduate student-athlete studying business. The current beneficiary, junior Lauren Steagall, is, like Ms. Dombay, a member of the swim team.
“This scholarship really means a lot to me and my family,” Ms. Steagall said, standing next to her benefactor onstage. “However, the support didn’t end on a financial level. Denise has become a great mentor for me. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”