Education Funding

Scholarship Fund Seeks Hidden Talents In Average Students

By Catherine Gewertz — June 06, 2001 5 min read
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The framed, 10-year-old letter hanging on the wall of Greg Forbes Siegman’s one-man scholarship foundation in Chicago tells the story of what drives him to give a boost to hard-working but underestimated high school seniors.

He had asked his high school mathematics teacher for a college-recommendation letter, but instead got a scathing profile that attacked him for everything from lack of charm to poor diction. The letter concluded that he had “little real talent or interest.” It did give him points, though, for “sheer determination.”

Mr. Siegman, now a 28-year-old substitute teacher who runs his own nonprofit organization in Chicago, will be the first to tell you he was the dumbest kid in his math class, and had to work much harder than his peers to earn an A in that class (and all his other classes).

He keeps his math teacher’s letter on his office wall—surrounded by the framed letters of companies who declined to help finance his scholarship project—to remind him of what it feels like to have talents that no one else notices or believes in.

“Sometimes, numbers and just what you see don’t tell the whole story of a person,” he said.

That’s why his 11-10-02 Foundation goes about its business in an unusual way. Its half-dozen $5,000 scholarships are given not to the straight-A students, but to B and C students from low- to moderate-income families who demonstrate an impressive work ethic, good character, and the ability to overcome obstacles. Candidates nominated by their schools are evaluated first by a panel of high school students, and a committee of Chicago civic leaders makes the final selections. This year’s recipients will be honored at a June 24 gala.

Donnay Green, 18, one of the recipients, exemplifies what the foundation seeks. Raised by his older brother, he carries a 3.1 grade point average at the 1,600-student Hyde Park Academy, a Chicago public school, is the captain of the football team, the president of a dance group, sings in the glee club, is active in the role models’ and business professionals’ clubs at his school, and does volunteer work for city homeless shelters.

Even with all that going for him, Mr. Green had applied for numerous other scholarships without success. He hopes that the 11-10-02 Foundation’s money will enable him to enroll at the University of Minnesota-Morris, where he plans to study computer science.

It wasn’t just Mr. Green’s activities and grades that impressed the committee, though. It was how he responded to 11-10-02’s application process. Like the other candidates, he had to submit a photo that captures his “essence,” and write an essay explaining why.

Mr. Green enclosed a photo that showed him running down the football field, and explained that the defender who had fallen in the photo symbolized all the young people who don’t make it, and how hard he has to work to succeed. He also said the many players outside the photo frame represented the many sacrifices his older brother Dahu had to make to raise him.

“We were so impressed with Donnay,” said Emily Schwartzwald, 18, a senior at Deerfield High School in Chicago and the chairwoman of the “junior committee” that sifts through the first round of candidates. “The criteria the foundation set up ensures they get kids with great stories and a great work ethic ... Even though they might not be the best students in their schools, they are great leaders and role models.”

A ‘Powerful’ Approach

The way the scholarships are funded has an unusual twist as well. Donors—including such prominent names as Detroit hockey star Chris Chelios—pay $7,500 for a milkshake, a drink that has come to symbolize Mr. Siegman’s work with Chicago youths.

In 1997, he took two of his students out for milkshakes. A white customer nearby, seeing the two African-American youths, glared at them and drew her purse close to her, Mr. Siegman recalls. That moment, and the drive-by slaying six years earlier of a black acquaintance, he says, catalyzed his conviction that he had to do something to help young people overcome the barriers that keep others from seeing their promise.

He formed, a mentoring group in which young people of all stripes meet weekly with successful Chicago businesspeople for a meal and conversation. Hundreds have participated in the brunches, which marked their 220th consecutive meeting this month. Mr. Siegman established the 11-10-02 Foundation last year as a way to begin direct financial help for teenagers, and named it after his 30th birthday to mark his desire to make a significant contribution to the greater good by that date. The foundation also provides grants to schools, teachers, and students for books, musical instruments, and school T-shirts

“He is driven. He has boundless energy,” said Michael W. Kiss, a senior vice president of LaSalle Bank N.A. and a milkshake-scholarship donor. “He doesn’t get discouraged, and he has no fear of being turned down.”

Indeed, no one would say Mr. Siegman lacks nerve. He assembled his “senior committee” by grabbing a phone during his free period at school and cold calling prominent civic leaders, most of whom he’d never met.

His brash enthusiasm, rapid-fire style of speaking, and publicist’s flair for symbols—the milkshake glass given to scholarship recipients; the daily mismatched socks that remind him to be humble, even as his foundation expands; the shaved head that he says just proves he’s not so bright—give him a distinctive presence. The combination of his persona and his cause, facilitated by the scads of publicity material he generates himself, has helped enlist many supporters.

“He’s remarkable,” said Peter Skarzynski, the chief executive officer of Strategos, a Chicago consulting firm that also has funded a milkshake scholarship. “He has a deep passion to change a big problem in the world ... He breaks the rules by focusing on the B and C students who go unnoticed. That is so powerful.”

Shawn Haugen, the executive director of the Chicago Scholars Foundation, said teenagers need more programs that recognize their potential. The nonprofit group she heads operates on the philosophy that such youths are overlooked in too many schools and gives $1,000 scholarships to one college-bound senior from each Chicago public and private high school each year.

“More people should do this,” she said of the 11-10-02 Foundation’s work. “I think it’s wonderful.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as Scholarship Fund Seeks Hidden Talents In Average Students


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