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Freshmen participate in first-ever merit scholarship program

Melissa Flanagan | Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Two years ago, two Notre Dame graduates made a large gift to the University with the intention of creating an undergraduate scholars program. This academic year, 25 freshmen became the first group of students to enter the University’s first merit-based scholarship program.

Mark and Stacey Yusko, classes of ’85 and ’86 respectively, donated $35 million in 2009 to create the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholarship Program.

The program selects 25 freshmen from each incoming class who demonstrate the characteristics of academic excellence, strong moral character, leadership potential and a sincere commitment to service, Mark Yusko said.

The scholars receive $25,000 toward their tuition each year, making the program Notre Dame’s first form of merit-based aid. They also receive funding for four summers of enrichment programs.

Each of the four summers, beginning prior to the student’s freshman year, has a different theme: wilderness leadership, social justice, global inquiry and professional venture.

Yusko said the summer experiences are more than an educational program.

“It is designed to take raw material and give it the tools and resources to develop into what we think are the platforms to become transformational leaders,” he said.

This idea of transformational leaders is central to the program, Yusko said.

“One of the important things about the program is that it is not a reward for past achievement, it is an investment in potential,” he said. “We want people who have true leadership character, a real passion for leading.”

Yusko said his idea for the program came from similar programs at other schools, such as the Morehead-Cain Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The formation of the Morehead Scholarships allowed UNC to attract the best students in the country by offering them such an incredible opportunity, Yusko said, and he wanted to see a similar effect at Notre Dame.

“One of the things I believed was we were still missing a cohort of great students, particularly great leaders, and great Catholic leaders who were being wooed away by Harvard, Yale, Princeton,” he said.

As the program grows, scholars can be nominated either by their high schools or Notre Dame’s early action admissions committee. However, Yusko hopes high schools will provide the majority of nominations in the future.

Based on the first class of Hesburgh-Yusko scholars, Yusko said he sees the program as a success.

“The class we brought in last year, we got half that class directly away from other schools where they were headed,” he said.

Freshman Kate Squiers, a Hesburgh-Yusko scholar, said she had not chosen a college when she received the scholarship offer, and it had a huge impact on her decision.

Squiers, who was involved in fine arts and service in high school, will be traveling to Pune, India for eight weeks this summer. She will attend classes for two of those weeks, and then, based on her interests, will be placed with an NGO for the remaining six.

Morgan Benson, another freshman Hesburgh-Yusko scholar, is looking forward to spending the summer in Lesotho, Africa, at a home for children who are malnourished or affected by HIV or Tuberculosis.

For their wilderness immersion last summer, both Benson and Squiers traveled to Washington and spent three weeks sea kayaking and mountaineering.

“We all went by ourselves. It’s supposed to be an introspective, independent experience,” Squiers said. “You were with a group of eight to 10 people, but no one from Notre Dame.”

While last summer’s adventure had to be organized through the program, Benson said the scholars had a great deal of freedom in choosing their destinations for this summer.

“This year they basically told us to write a grant proposal based on our interests and where we’d like to go and what we wanted to do, and then we had interviews to talk about our options,” she said.

The scholars do not have many requirements at Notre Dame, Squiers said. One is enrolling in a one-and-a-half credit weekly seminar, in which they listen to a speaker or discuss current news.

Each Hesburgh-Yusko scholar also participates in weekly service.

Freshman Ben Finan said he satisfies this requirement by working with the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley.

“It’s a community organization, they’ve been trying to reach out to college students and get involved here and I’ve been helping facilitate that,” Finan said.

Benson works with Timmy Foundation for her service requirement. Squiers became involved with Campus Ministry and Archangels, a South Bend organization that mentors teenagers.

Finan, who hopes to spend this summer at Seeds of Peace, a diversity camp in Maine, said he has enjoyed his experience in the program so far, mostly due to the other scholars.

“It’s fostered a lot of friendships because it brings 25 people together who aren’t necessarily the same personality-wise, but who are all strong people and good leaders,” he said. “It’s really a great group of people to be around.”