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Xavier Magazine | May 26, 2017

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The Little Things

By France Griggs Sloat

Some days, it hurts just to get dressed. Every joint feels like it’s on fire. But Stephanie Ibemere forges on, taking her ritual of painkillers, steroids and immuno-suppressants to stem the debilitating effects of the lupus that rages through her body.

Then she goes to class.

Ibemere, a senior pre-med major, was diagnosed seven years ago with lupus, an autoimmune disease that mimics arthritis. Though it’s a daily struggle, she puts up with the demands of her medical condition because she has a goal, a dream, and completing her degree at Xavier is a big part of it. But it hasn’t been easy. Because of the lupus, and because of money.

A couple of times, in fact, Ibemere thought she was going to have to drop out and give up her dream because she was out of money. The thought shook her to the core. Without her education, she couldn’t fulfill her dream—becoming a pediatric rheumatologist and treating children who are also stricken with lupus.

In the fall of her freshman year, Ibemere came to Xavier owing $4,000 in tuition after her financial aid awards were applied. She was living at home to save money, and her parents helped pay down part of the fall tuition bill. By the end of the semester, however, she still owed $500.

The registrar’s office put a hold on her account, which meant she couldn’t register for the spring semester. “When I walked into Xavier I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Ibemere says. “I didn’t have a plan to pay for it. I was freaking out.”

Then she remembered meeting Adrian Schiess during orientation. He told all of the first-year students they could come to him if there was ever a time they needed help staying in school. This, she decided, was one of those times.

Schiess runs the Office of Student Success and Retention. Its purpose is to do what it takes to keep kids in school. When Ibemere came to him, she had already exhausted all possible additional financial aid at Xavier.

Her parents, who had moved to Texas, were paying her medical bills and had nothing left for tuition. Schiess took a look at her grades, talked with her about her goals and her medical situation—and gave her $500.

Her bill was paid.

Ibemere thanked Schiess. But she also thanked, in writing, the man who made the $500 gift possible: George Albrecht. Albrecht is a retired Army officer who has helped many Xavier students through a special fund that is set up to benefit student retention. His donations aren’t huge—usually about $1,500 a year—but they’ve been matched by his employers. And they’re impactful. More than $15,000 has been given to more than 50 students since he started giving 10 years ago, usually in small chunks of $200, $500 and one in 2005 for $30.30. Never more than $1,000.

And Albrecht isn’t alone. Several similar funds set up by grateful parents or alumni designated to benefit student retention—and bridge that last gap between a student paying the bill or withdrawing from school. The amounts may be small, but for these students, $500 might as well be $5 million.

Ibemere sums it up: “I wouldn’t be in school right now if I didn’t have this money.”

Such donations to a University may pale in comparison to what it costs to name a new building to fully endow an academic scholarship. But as Xavier enters the final three years of its $200 million capital campaign, To See Great Wonders: The Campaign for Xavier, the University is aware of the importance of smaller contributions to its mission—and values them no less than the larger ones.

“One-hundred dollars may not seem like a lot, but the cumulative power of those gifts together can make an enormous difference on whether we can provide the financial packages to allow a student to come to Xavier,” says Norah Mock, senior associate director for the Annual Fund. “Chances are some of these students we help today could become very successful, and our hope is they remember this assistance and do the same for future students.”

With the campaign already accumulating $175 million in actual and pledged dollars, and with construction of the new James E. Hoff, S.J., Academic Quad underway, campaign managers are beginning to organize a new phase to the fundraising, emphasizing smaller gifts that add up and wrap up the last 25 percent of a campaign.

All of these smaller donations are given to the University’s Annual Fund, which places the gifts into restricted funds as directed by the donor—such as the funds Schiess uses to help student retention—or into unrestricted funds that go into Xavier’s general operating budget to pay for everything from electric bills to additional money for financial aid. The latter, says Mock, is becoming increasingly critical. Each year the University awards roughly $31 million in financial aid. And with the uncertain economy, the ability to use more and more of the gifts given to the Annual Fund—which brings in roughly $6 million a year in these small gifts—to provide additional financial aid to help students enroll at Xavier is even greater.

“As a university, our ultimate goal is to educate students,” says Mock, “and we are all committed to providing the support that allows us to meet our enrollment goals. Gifts to the Annual Fund and endowment—no matter what the size—are critical to the overall success of the University achieving its mission and vision.”

Eighteen years ago, the University opened the Office of Freshman Programs to help freshman students adjust to college. It was the first such program in the country focused solely on retaining students, and Schiess, a retired Army officer and the professor of Military Science, was handed the job.

It turned out to be a good move. Since 1990, retention rates at Xavier have shot up from 75 percent to 87 percent this year—the highest rate for similar universities in the Midwest. It even hit 90 percent recently until the economy soured.

Renamed the Office of Student Success and Retention, it has an open-door policy that lets students drop in unannounced. About 10,000 have done so over the years.

Located in the main hallway of Alter Hall, its nondescript space belies the drama that often unfolds inside. Behind Schiess’ closed door, students fess up to him the kinds of personal things they’d never tell their parents or best friends, issues impeding their ability to stay at Xavier: their parents’ divorce, their roommate’s behavior, their father’s lost income, their own social maladjustment to college. Their empty bank accounts.

Schiess hands out tissues and talks to them. He knows which ones are in academic trouble—professors inform him who’s struggling. He narrows down the source of their troubles and seeks solutions. For some, it’s a change of roommates. For others, it’s a trip to the health center or help talking with a professor or simply getting a parent on the phone.

But for most, it’s about money. Currently, the University has six funds specifically restricted to aiding student retention. In addition to Albrecht’s, similar funds have been set up by William Roby, Dr. Eric Anderson, William Schrott and the late Jack McAfee.

The stories and the gifts come in all shapes and sizes: $600 to replace stolen books, $500 each to pay three sisters’ tuition after their mother fell ill. About 98 percent of the students who have received this aid have finished school and graduated, Schiess says. Albrecht, whose son attended Xavier, has no plans to stop making yearly contributions. For him, the letters from grateful students mean everything. He still has Ibemere’s letter. “The satisfaction is hearing from these kids,” he says. “You know what you’re doing actually helps somebody.”

Three years ago Emily Huebener was desperate. Her mother recently died, her father was back home in Louisville, Ky., struggling with his own medical issues and—on top of trying to pay her own tuition—she was working to pay for her sister’s Catholic high school education. Roby, a former Army officer who graduated with Schiess in 1969, heard of her plight and got his old friend on the phone.

“I said, ‘How can I help her?’ ” says Roby, also of Louisville. “He looked at her transcript, saw she had a 3.85 GPA and said she’s a good kid. He said what she needs this semester is $2,000. And so every semester, he’d call me and say, ‘Can you send a check for $2,000?’ We did this for three years.”

Roby donated more than $8,000 toward Huebener’s education. She graduated cum laude in 2008 with a degree in nursing and is now working at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in pediatrics. Between gifts from Roby, Huebener would visit him and his wife, Mary Jane. She’d take them to lunch, show them her grades and tell them how grateful she was.

“When she graduated, she sent us this lengthy letter thanking us and how excited she was to be working at Children’s Hospital and that had been her dream and that had now been fulfilled,” Roby says.

It was the perfect tonic for Roby. “I love the smaller gifts where you can see what it’s doing for kids,” Roby says. “To just send a check someplace doesn’t move my needle, but to see what the checks do for people, and they say thank you and you see their smiles—that’s the reward.”

One of the newest student retention funds was set up by the family of Brian McCormick, a member of the Class of 1997 who died in April 2008. His brother, Matt McCormick, who graduated in 1992, said the family felt a fund in Brian’s memory that made small contributions to individual students would be more rewarding than making one large contribution to the University. Already, with contributions from family members and friends of Brian, the fund is topping $10,000.

“If they don’t get this shot, they may never graduate,” McCormick says. “That makes a great impact because these are kids who don’t have anywhere else to turn.”

Schiess couldn’t agree more. As he stocks his office with Kleenex and juggles the students’ need for the aid his office provides, he thinks of students like Ibemere. She faces a stem cell transplant next summer to get the lupus under control, and then she expects to graduate in December. For dedicated students like her, the money is a pure gift.

“I had a girl in here a few minutes ago whose benefactor is out of money because of the economy,” Schiess says. “She’s a junior in Montessori education with 3.7 GPA, so we’re working on it right now. The bottom line is these funds come to the rescue to ensure it happens. I’m not going to let a student not register because they owe the University $750.”

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