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A lifelong gift

Opportunity VCU, alumni generosity spark new student scholarships

By Tom Myrick

Universities and tuition costs are not immune from difficult economic times. As the cost of higher education continues to rise, the amount of state funds allocated to help cover these expenses continue to decrease. In fiscal year 2010, for example, Virginia Commonwealth University received $25.4 million less in state support than it did in fiscal year 2000, despite enrolling nearly 9,000 more students.

One of the many challenges VCU faces in dealing with these financial changes is finding funding for new student scholarships — a key component to attracting the best and brightest students to the university. As a result, the VCU and MCV Alumni Associations launched the Opportunity VCU campaign in 2009, an initiative to raise $50 million for scholarships and fellowships across all academic units.

Among those who have answered the challenge to participate in Opportunity VCU are three special stories, each with its own connection to the university and eagerness to help students. Thanks to their efforts and generosity, VCU students have new scholarships: the Marion Cotter King Memorial Gerontology Scholarship, the Kathryn Lawrence Dragas Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Lewis and Violet Childers Memorial Scholarship in Physical Therapy.

Marion Cotter King Memorial Gerontology Scholarship

Marion Cotter King

The inspiration for this newly created gerontology scholarship, Marion Cotter King refused to let advancing age get in the way of her enthusiasm for life.

“My mother was very fun-loving,” says James Cotter, Ph.D., associate professor of gerontology in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions. “She traveled to 44 countries and six of the seven continents. She traveled even into her late 80s. She would get taken to the cruise ships in a wheelchair, but once she was on it, she would get up and dance the night away.”

After her first husband passed away, King raised their two children (Cotter and his younger sister, Patricia Duggan) on her own, supporting her family as a single mom at a time when few women worked outside the home. “She was ahead of her time,” Cotter says.

But pursuing adventures and seeing the world always remained a key part of King’s life. “Her love of life, her interest in life and the world: Those are the things about my mom that have inspired me,” Cotter says.

It is that zest and eagerness that motivated Cotter and Duggan to start the Marion Cotter King Memorial Gerontology Scholarship in their mother’s honor. With its focus on students interested in elder recreation and leisure, the scholarship will allow others to get the same fulfillment out of their golden years that King herself enjoyed.

“Scholarship is the first line of encouraging education,” Cotter says. “Scholarships such as these also help VCU as a whole. If it’s a choice between VCU and somewhere else, and we are able to provide a little bit of support, that could be a deciding factor in attracting a bright student.”

Indeed, King’s connection to VCU goes beyond just her son — three of her grandchildren have attended the university as well, including Evan Cotter (B.F.A. '03), Drew Cotter (B.S. '06) and Margaret Cotter, who is currently studying in Turkey as a Boren Scholar.

“I think [Margaret] got some of her grandmother’s travel bug,” Cotter says.

Kathryn Lawrence Dragas Memorial Scholarship Fund

Kathryn Lawrence Dragas

For many graduates of the Department of Occupational Therapy, one of the lasting memories of the program is the friendships that working in such a close-knit atmosphere provides. The long days of classes and the numerous collaborative projects create a unique bond between students of the OT program.

“I’ve gone to several universities, and what amazed me about VCU’s occupational therapy program was the sense of community and interpersonal relationships it had,” Fiona Bessey-Bushnell (M.S.O.T. '01/ OT) says. “It was a nurturing environment, and we all helped each other out.”

Not only do these connections help students while they are in the program (“You really have to collaborate if you are going to get through school,” Bessey-Bushnell says), the sense of fellowship also continues long after graduation. It was that unity that led three occupational therapy graduates — Bessey- Bushnell, Cassie Lorie (M.S.O.T. '01/OT) and Selena Isabelle (M.S.O.T. '01/OT) — to create the Kathryn Lawrence Dragas Memorial Scholarship to honor their friend and former classmate, Kathryn Dragas, after she passed away in December 2009.

Lorie initially proposed the idea, and the three graduates, with the help of Kathryn’s husband, William Dragas, and her brother, John Lawrence, did the legwork to get the scholarship off the ground, pulling the occupational therapy class together to work toward this common goal.

“Kathryn was always very giving of herself,” Bessey-Bushnell says. “She was always willing to help out and support others. She was always an excellent student as well, so honoring her with a scholarship just made sense.”

While the scholarship is available to anyone applying to the occupational therapy program, preference will be given to those pursuing a career in pediatrics — a particular interest of Kathryn’s, as she earned a number of advanced certifications in that area after graduating from VCU.

“Unfortunately, I never got to meet her, but it sounds like Kathryn and I were a lot alike,” Jessica Lynn, the scholarship’s inaugural recipient, says. “We had a lot of the same interests professionally, and a lot of the same personality traits. I couldn’t put into words how special it was to receive a scholarship named for someone so highly thought of.”

In addition to extending Dragas’ legacy, the scholarship also ensures that the kinship shared by OT students will only continue to grow.

“This scholarship has really given me a better connection with [Kathryn’s] classmates,” Jenny Bonano, the scholarship’s second recipient, says. “People like Fiona and everyone else I’ve met with have been really supportive and are great resources for me as a student. Meeting them also helps me understand who Kathryn was as a person, as well as learn how the OT program has developed over the years. It’s been wonderful.”

“The scholarship is about helping others with funds, but it’s also an opportunity for healing,” Bessey-Bushnell says. “It was therapeutic to meet and talk to the recipients. Plus, some of our class had lost touch, and it was a chance for us to renew those connections again. Kathryn would have been very pleased with that.”

Lewis and Violet Childers Memorial Scholarship in Physical Therapy

Lewis and Violet Childers

Janet Showalter (B.S. '58/PT) knows firsthand the important role that outside support can play in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals.

Encountering a neighbor who was often restricted to a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis, Showalter learned the benefits of physical therapy at a young age and quickly set her sights on a career in the field.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be a physical therapist,” Showalter says. “But there just wasn’t much knowledge out there about what a woman could do [in medicine] besides being a nurse.”

In addition to the lack of opportunities, financial concerns also threatened to derail Showalter’s dream. Though money was tight within her family, Showalter’s parents recognized her desire and commitment, and found a way to support her through her studies at Mary Washington College and, later, the Medical College of Virginia.

“I know they worked very hard to be able to get the finances together to send me to school,” Showalter says. “They were wonderful parents and I really wanted to find a way to honor them.”

In the end, Showalter decided on a fitting tribute to the parents who had stood behind her: by providing the same support they had offered her to others. The Lewis and Violet Childers Memorial Scholarship, created by Showalter and her husband, Lee, will assist physical therapy students facing significant personal challenges, such as financial need.

“A lot of times, there’s a person who is qualified [to attend school for physical therapy], but he or she just doesn’t have the finances available to them to be able to follow that dream,” Showalter says. “I just don’t think there are enough scholarships for physical therapy students.”

Showalter’s daughter, Sarah Mays (B.S. '84/PT), believes her grandparents would be pleased to have their names associated with the scholarship.

“I’m really happy for my mom to be able to honor her parents this way,” Mays says. “They would be thrilled to be able to encourage students to get an education. It makes for a nice circle of completion — they were able to put money together to get her through school, so she now is able to help others.”

A graduate from VCU’s physical therapy program as well, Mays and her mother shared the unique experience of being classmates during her junior year, when Showalter and a friend audited a handful of classes at VCU.

“It was very special,” Mays says. “We were in the old South Hospital, and Mom had a chair right behind me. She makes the most awesome fudge, and would bring it in for everyone in the class to eat during breaks. She was just like a mom to everyone in the class.”

Tom Myrick (M.A. '05; M.S. '07) is a contributing writer for VCU Allied Health.

To support student scholarships in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions, contact Jessica Gurganus, assistant dean for development and external affairs, at (804) 828-3269 or jfgurganus@vcu.edu, or make an online gift at www.support.vcu.edu/give/alliedhealthscholarship.