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Blair Foundation scholarships fuel research opportunities

Investing in the future. Moving forward together. Opening doors. Paying it forward. The language of philanthropy varies, but the bottom line remains: Philanthropists make a difference not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the health and wellbeing of communities and the world.

The Blair Foundation, named for the late Naples philanthropists and conservationists Dorothy and John Blair, is committed to making a difference in Southwest Florida, and FGCU students are among the fortunate recipients of the foundation’s generosity. Not surprisingly, given the Blairs’ passion for conservation, Blair Foundation scholarships were originally available only to students conducting environmental research through FGCU’s Whitaker Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education. This year, however, the foundation broadened its parameters. Students pursuing an undergraduate degree and majoring in any STEM subject may now apply.

Jim Laurion, trustee of the foundation, shares the thought process behind the scholarship awards. “During the previous years that we elected to give annual scholarship gifts, we experienced very sincere and fun reports from the students at FGCU. Since the Blair Foundation was terminating, we decided to make a likewise gift that would stretch for 15 years into the future.

“Rather than an endowment, we chose to structure a lump-sum gift that would grant more numerous and ‘immediate’ gifts each year over the next 15 years.  It’s an investment and gift for the current generation of students, not smaller annual gifts that would stretch in perpetuity. We hope the result will be that more current FGCU students will benefit from and enjoy the motivations and rewards that come from education, and we all will benefit from their subsidized efforts.”

Matthew Hale, ’18, explores the relationship of sustainable values and actions. Photos by James Greco

Laura Frost, director of the Whitaker Center, is deeply grateful for the foundation’s steadfast support over the years and for the recent exceptionally generous gift of $1.39 million, which translates into 10 $5,000 scholarships each year for 15 years.

“Blair Foundation scholarships have made a significant difference in the lives of our students,” Frost says. “When students immerse themselves in research over an entire summer, they not only accomplish a lot, but they are better positioned to secure more scholarships outside of the university, including national scholarships like the Goldwater Scholarship for Science.”

Luka Ndungu, (’18, environmental science), a graduate student working with Hidetoshi Urakawa, associate professor of ecological studies, is conducting research into applying hydrogen peroxide to control harmful algal blooms in fresh water ponds and rivers, a project extremely relevant to Southwest Florida.

Ndungu’s interest in water quality originated in his native Kenya. “I am driven to understand what causes poor water quality and to learn ways to eradicate these problems for the sake of humans and animals,” he says. Ndungu’s goal is to return to Kenya and “bring transformation into Kenya’s cities. With the education I gain in America, I will surely make a significant difference back home.”

Receiving the Blair Foundation Scholarship was a game changer for Ndungu. “To be honest, it would have been tough to pursue this level of research without the financial support. I would like to thank my sponsors for their kind hearts in offering me this scholarship and helping me see my dream come true.”

Urakawa is pleased with Ndungu’s progress. “I do not doubt that his research will be published in a top-ranked journal,” he says. “FGCU does not have the resources that larger universities have. The Blair Foundation offers great opportunities for our students.”

Matthew Hale (’18, environmental studies), on the other hand, is interested in human behavior as it relates to sustainable actions. His research focuses on the actions of Lee County residents, who he surveyed in a random study. His overarching question: “Is there a values-action gap between sustainable values and sustainable actions in a population that is currently experiencing disasters associated with climate change?” Hale hopes that the results of his research will inform public education efforts that promote personal sustainable choices and reduce the impacts of climate change.

As to having received the Blair Foundation Scholarship, Hale could not be more appreciative. “It’s monumental,” he says. “I’ve worked my way through college and to participate in an officially funded research project is huge. The $5,000 award gives me the opportunity to conduct research and attend academic conferences.

Hale’s faculty advisor, Molly Nation, assistant professor of environmental education, commended Hale for his thoughtful approach to his research project, which, unlike many research projects in the environmental sciences, focuses more on qualitative research and human behavior.

“The Blair Foundation scholarships make it possible for students at FGCU to get real-life research experiences they might not otherwise have the opportunity to pursue,” she says. “Scholarly research is really a necessity. The Blair scholarships not only provide the resources for our students, but also they are really big motivators for students to engage in scholarly research.”

Hale adds, “I’ve lived in this community for a long time. Just receiving this scholarship makes me feel more part of the community. And I believe if the community gives me my opportunity, I must do something with the community to give back.”