News | April 15, 2021

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Pandemic creates greater need for life-changing scholarships as family budgets feel strain

11 - minute read

Professionals such as nurses, teachers, counselors and social workers play vital roles in times like these, when the whole community’s wellbeing hangs in the balance. They help people heal. Ensure that children learn and families stay strong. They innovate solutions that serve the public good.


FGCU does its part by preparing these frontline heroes. With exceptional faculty and hands-on learning, students graduate ready to hit the trenches and conquer real-world challenges. Support by generous donors helps get them there.


By funding a scholarship or supporting a program, donors empower more individuals to follow this path and make a difference where it matters most: on the frontlines.


Last year, more than 8,300 students relied on scholarships to help them earn a degree. The need continues to exceed the available funds despite the fact that FGCU has not raised tuition or fees for 7 years.


The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified that need for financial assistance as families have lost their primary sources of income and the part- time jobs students relied on to help pay their way disappeared at the same time.


Erick Sandoval is among those feeling that impact. As the fall 2020 semester approached, he worried that he might not be able to start his junior year at FGCU.


His father lost his job as a finish carpenter in March 2020 when businesses shut down because of the pandemic and, although both Erick and his mother were still working, money was tight.


Erick Sandoval

“I was thinking I might have to take a break from school to work more hours to help my family pay rent and other expenses,” said the sports management major who was already putting in 30 hours a week at a local condo complex.


But Erick was lucky.


Just in the nick of time, he received two scholarships – the Donald and Elizabeth Manchester Scholarship and an FGCU Foundation Board Scholarship. Together, they enabled him to take a full course load in both the fall and spring semesters.


“I feel so blessed,” he said. “I’m the first person in my entire family to graduate high school and the first to go to college. I am super thankful for this.”


Erick is one of thousands of students for whom scholarships and grants make a college education possible.


The FGCU Foundation Board of Directors recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic had created even greater economic hardships for students. That gave Foundation Board Treasurer Charles Ketteman an idea.


He suggested that the board members create a scholarship fund to which each member would donate “as much as we felt good about then ask friends and acquaintances to match us,” he said.


The group raised $30,000 in the first 48 hours and has raised close to $70,000 for the Foundation Board Scholarship Fund.


“I relate to this,” said Linda Taylor, former Board of Trustees member and former FGCU Foundation Board chair and now Foundation Fellow, speaking about the fund. “I would not have been able to finish school if I had lost my job.”


Although the Foundation has distributed a record $4.4 million in scholarships this year, this special fund might mean the difference between whether dozens of students can return to school or not.


Meanwhile, the FGCU Foundation continues to seek contributions to augment its scholarship funds, changing the lives of students who will graduate and take their newfound knowledge and skills back into the community that helped them get there.


FGCU donations help support innovative, meaningful research for students and faculty.Here are some donors who have stepped up to help FGCU students with scholarships.

Cornelius “Pat” and Leonie Cacho Family Scholarships

Since establishing their scholarship, Pat and Leonie Cacho have helped more than 44 students achieve their dream of pursuing higher education. As of this writing, 23 students have completed their degrees; others are currently enrolled

and successfully progressing toward graduation.


Dolly Farrell, FGCU senior development officer, reported that “many of the Cacho Family Scholars have gone on to have very impressive careers and are very passionate about helping others.”


Pat Cacho came to Naples via Belize; Leonie Cacho, via Jamaica. “We wanted to help underprivileged youth who wanted to make something of themselves, to help them know they belong. The underprivileged among us are at a terrible disadvantage.”


“You can see the brightness in their eyes and on their face,” said Leonie Cacho. “Yet because of background, environment, or other constraints, they need an opportunity to move forward. Giving such a person that opportunity is about the best thing anyone can do.”


Scholarship recipient Philip Belidor, a sophomore majoring in psychology, is progressing nicely toward graduation. His goal: medical school. In a letter to the Cachos, Belidor expressed his gratitude: “You are both an inspiration to me. I will forever remember your generosity and when I go to medical school, I will do my best to become the best doctor in my class. Thank you.”


Leonie Cacho said, “I believe that by being the best doctor in his class, Philip is paying it forward.”


NeoGenomics Laboratory

To those not conversant in the language of laboratory sciences, neogenomics is a mystery. To those interested in laboratory diagnostic and clinical trial services with a focus on cancer, neogenomics is a career path.


Which, not surprisingly, makes the scholarship offered to FGCU students by NeoGenomics Laboratories in Fort Myers an exciting – and unique – opportunity.


At the risk of oversimplifying, NeoGenomics Laboratories is a national and international company specializing in molecular testing and cancer diagnostics. The scholarship supports the laboratory science program at FGCU.


“We’re expanding in Fort Myers, adding the molecular portion to the lab to mirror our facility in California,” said Tiffany Chouinard, Sr. director of employee development and wellness at NeoGenomics.


“Hiring for our expansion is a huge need. Our partnership with FGCU helps us and the students. They take the classes we need to round out our workforce; they participate in an internship with us and, in return, agree to work with NeoGenomics for two years.


Julie Zemplinski, FGCU program director of clinical laboratory science and diagnostic molecular science, said, “Given the shortage of workers in the healthcare industry and the specific skills needed by NeoGenomics, a partnership with FGCU makes perfect sense. Graduate students are eligible and required to take classes relevant to the work of NeoGenomics, which aims to build their employee base by gaining competent and efficient workers in the future.”


It’s a win-win. FGCU students who graduate in good standing are almost guaranteed to land a job at NeoGenomics. In turn, the company gains an educated workforce well versed in the knowledge and skills needed to excel.


Athletic scholarships

Grit and determination – that’s what it takes to be a student-athlete. And that’s what defines FGCU’s student-athletes on and off the field. But it also takes financial support, and therein lies, perhaps, the greatest challenge. Practice … study … work … It’s a grueling cycle and without the generous support of so many FGCU donors, many well qualified student- athletes might not have the wherewithal to even attend university never mind compete in their chosen sport.

Tyra Cox

The good news is scholarship support for FGCU’s students and teams is impressive. Each year, multiple general and restricted scholarships are awarded to deserving students who not only excel in their sport, but also in the classroom. To wit, fall 2020 FGCU’s student- athletes earned a record term GPA of 3.5, according to Graham Diemer, associate athletic director for Advancement.


Then there is the Eagle Scholarship Society, which currently has 20 members. A minimum gift or pledge of $20,000 annually for five years is required for membership. Each scholarship is assigned one student-athlete recipient.


Tyra Cox, women’s basketball, (’20, Business Management) now working on her MBA, speaks for many: “From the deepest part of my heart, I want to say thank you. You have given me an opportunity I might never have had. When I am able, I would love to do the same and change someone’s life the way you have.”




Lennar Fellows Scholarship Program

Established in 2019, The Lennar Homes Scholarship for construction management and select business students, offers the opportunity of a lifetime to three – soon to be four – students each year.


The $20,000 full-ride scholarship covers tuition, room, board, technology and books; an opportunity to participate in two internships; and the potential of fulltime employment on graduating in good stead. If recipients keep their grades up, the scholarship renews each year.


Alexandra Barrios, a junior majoring in accounting, is “super thankful” not only for the financial  assistance, but also for the related opportunities.


“Participating in the internship with Lennar is a great way for me to gain experience in my field. I couldn’t be more grateful.”


Division President Darin McMurray said, “Our main goal is to give our youth the opportunity to attend university. We also hope to interest students in the construction industry, whether on the building or business side.


“We’ve been very successful hiring FGCU graduates,” adding that 15 current employees are FGCU graduates, among them Steve Gabor (’01, Finance) who worked his way up from purchasing agent to vice president of purchasing.


Angela Kunkle, FGCU senior development officer, said, “Lennar Homes has invested not only in our students’ futures, but also in the future of our Southwest Florida workforce. We could not be more grateful for their generous support.”


According to McMurray, “FGCU is a great place for us to recruit great talent and great people. We love what they stand for, and we’re proud to be part of their success.”


David A. Plonski Scholarship Endowed Fund

“Paying it forward” is personal, often taking root in days past and challenges overcome. Paying it forward is life’s gift, encouraging others to be strong, to say with conviction, “I got this.”


Dave Plonski grew up in a middle- class family in Pennsylvania, second- generation immigrants. Life, however, threw a curve ball, and Plonski, not by choice, became “a street kid,” homeless. He worked hard, married, had two daughters, divorced, and became a custodial single parent. In 1989, disaster struck when his youngest daughter Erin, then five years old, was diagnosed with AML leukemia. “I received lots of support,” he said, and thanks to a bone marrow transplant his daughter recovered. In 1998, he met his wife, Chris Nesheim-Plonski, whom he credits with his ongoing success and joy.


Through it all, Plonski worked hard, started and sold his HVAC company and moved to Fort Myers. He and his oldest daughter, Terra Anderson, then started Gulfshore Trucking. For eight years, he also acted as a children’s advocate for the Florida 20th Judicial Court, serving children in the system and foster care program.


Which brings us to the David A. Plonski Scholarship Fund. “From my life’s experiences, I understand the obstacles some young adults ‘in the system’ face. This scholarship is not academically based; it requires a GPA of only 2.0. It is heavily weighted for young adults who have experienced foster care, homelessness, or single- parent homes.


“Could you ever hope to find a better return on an investment, with zero risk? I think not.”

— Drew Sterwald contributed to this story.




For information or to make a gift, contact the Foundation office at (239) 590-1067 or give online at






John Guigon was an ardent supporter of Florida Gulf Coast University from its early days until his passing last October at age 90.

John Guigon
John Guigon | Photo By Brian Tietz.

He joined the FGCU Foundation Board of Directors in 1998 when he and his wife, Dorothy, saw the university’s great potential. He served until 2006. “That was the beginning of our love affair with FGCU,” he said in 2014.


Through scholarships and other forms of support, the Bonita Springs couple helped ensure an education and promising future for many FGCU students. They were inducted into the Order of the Majestic Eagle, the FGCU Foundation’s highest honor reserved for benefactors who have contributed $2 million or more.


In addition to philanthropy, he shared his wisdom and leadership.

“We miss John every day,” says Dolly Farrell, senior director of development. “I John Guigon miss seeing John at the basketball games. There was rarely a game he and Dorothy did not attend. John Guigon will be remembered as a visionary who impacted every corner of campus just like Ben Hill Griffin, Bill Merwin, Elaine Marieb and many others. These are the people who changed the trajectory of our future through their leadership and philanthropy.”


John Guigon spent 37 years practicing private and corporate law. After his association with a New York City firm, he worked in corporate law with Merck & Schering-Plough. In 1979, he was appointed vice president and general counsel of Schering-Plough, retiring in 1991, when he and Dorothy moved to Florida.


In addition to his longtime support of FGCU, he was active in the Lee County Guardian Ad Litem program, serving on its board for five years and as president for two years.


He is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 51 years, and their pet Havanese, Sir Spencer[/vc_column_text]

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