By Ed Brennen
Oprah Winfrey made quite a splash when she visited campus last year and helped the university raise more than $3 million for student scholarships – including a surprise $1.5 million matching gift of her own.
As with any splash, Winfrey’s generosity created a ripple effect that has already grown from six to 60 students – and will continue on at the university for years to come.
To mark the one-year anniversary of Winfrey’s visit, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney invited the first recipients of the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship to a luncheon at University Crossing’s Moloney Hall.
There, in the same room where Winfrey delighted 250 students in a master class before her sold-out Chancellor’s Speaker Series appearance at the Tsongas Center, dozens of undergraduate students shared their gratitude and reflected on the impact of their scholarships totaling $300,000.
“It meant a whole lot to me and my family to get this scholarship,” said Denzel Kumah, a junior nursing major from Worcester. “To have a big name like Oprah, with her status in this world, helping students out like that is something I really appreciate.”
“The scholarship was an eye-opener for me,” added Lissette Robles, a sophomore nursing major from Lawrence. “It’s motivated me to work even harder. If I want more scholarships that mean something to me, I have to work for it.”
Moloney, who wore the same sequined shoes that she wore on the Tsongas Center stage that night with Winfrey, shared with students how the event came together – and why she believes Winfrey took the microphone at evening’s end to announce that she was matching the $1.5 million raised.
“She saw the story of UMass Lowell,” Moloney said. “She saw your stories – our student stories – and what our faculty do here. She saw how our staff give philanthropically to scholarships to help people like you.
“That night, Oprah decided to invest in all of you. She didn’t know who you are personally, but she knows who you are, and she wanted to make a difference in your life.”
The Oprah Winfrey Scholarship benefits students with financial need who have demonstrated a commitment to academic achievement. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and include several members of the university’s new DC-CAP Scholars Program.
“Everyone in this room was chosen because you are really contributing and doing something special,” said Julie Nash, vice provost for undergraduate studies and student success.
Winfrey’s gift created one of 26 new endowed funds (totaling $5.5 million) established at the university in the past year, which support scholarships for student veterans and undergraduates majoring in accounting, music education, plastics and civil engineering and more. The university currently has 551 endowed funds (totaling almost $100 million) that benefit scholarships and other programs.
From those endowed funds, the university awarded 946 scholarships totaling $1.7 million in Fiscal Year 2020. (An additional $1.35 million was provided in general support for academic programs and university initiatives.) The number of endowed scholarships at UML has doubled from a decade ago, when 474 endowed scholarships were awarded totaling $866,000.
The momentum created by Winfrey’s visit has helped fuel record support for the university’s campaign, Our Legacy, Our Place: 125 and Rising. To date, more than 32,000 donors have contributed more than $150 million to support scholarships, faculty recruitment and research, campus improvements and UML’s Division I athletics program.
“What Oprah and her foundation have done is given our students a chance at a better life, and that’s what Oprah is all about,” says Vice Chancellor for Advancement John Feudo. “It’s no surprise she chose UMass Lowell, because our mission is her mission. We couldn’t be more honored to be a beneficiary of her generosity.”
During the lunch, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and University Events Larry Siegel announced the creation of the new Oprah Scholarship Society, which will launch in January as a way to promote leadership, social justice and service among members.
Kumah was among those who “absolutely” would be joining the society.
“I just want to keep paying it forward and doing my best to be part of something bigger than myself,” he said.
As one of the first six students nominated for the Oprah Scholarship last fall, senior political science major Daphne Shakira Naut of Methuen got to meet the iconic talk show host, actress, author, publisher, entrepreneur and philanthropist backstage at the Tsongas Center.
“I was starstruck,” says Naut, who has kept Winfrey’s advice in mind over the past year.
“I think the greatest advice that I took from her that night was to be of service to one another,” Naut says. “I know that before I leave UMass Lowell, that’s something that I really want to get out to students. Just be polite and help each other, because you never know who’s in need.”