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Faculty, staff create 27 new endowments for UC Davis graduate students

Ted and Silvia Hillyer

Retired staff members Ted and Silvia Hillyer

(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

by Angela Hokanson

For Silvia Hillyer, who worked for 21 years as a student affairs officer in UC Davis’ graduate group in ecology before her retirement in March, the importance of graduate education — and the challenges of affording it — are very familiar.

During her career, Hillyer managed the ecology graduate group’s admissions and budget, and she processed students’ applications for fellowships and helped track fellowship funding.

“Financing a graduate student education can be a real challenge,” she said.

That challenge is one of the reasons that Hillyer and her husband, Ted — a retired staff member in the department of applied science, and the president of the UC Davis Retirees’ Association — chose to make a gift through the Soderquist Matching Fund Initiative for Graduate Student Support.

The Hillyers are two of the more than two dozen faculty, staff, retirees and emeriti faculty who together established 27 new endowments to support graduate and professional school students through this effort.

Private gifts to support graduate students help UC Davis attract top students in a competitive environment, and allow those students to focus on their research, according to Graduate Studies Dean Jeffery Gibeling.

“Graduate students generate new knowledge, and come up with ideas, technologies and innovations across the spectrum of disciplines that improve society and our economy,” Gibeling said. “And, gifts to support graduate students enhance the academic excellence of UC Davis.”

Through this initiative — UC Davis’ first such matching fund effort for graduate student support — donors could establish an endowed fund to support graduate students with a gift of $12,500 or more; each contribution was matched dollar-for-dollar, up to a maximum of $25,000. The matching funds came from a $500,000 gift from the estate of alumnus Charlie Soderquist.

The matching fund initiative, which specifically encouraged gifts from current and retired UC Davis faculty and staff, was announced in January 2010. Since then, faculty and staff donors contributed $696,000 to benefit graduate students. Their gifts, combined with the $500,000 in matching funds, together equal nearly $1.2 million in new endowed funding committed for graduate students and brings the Soderquist Matching Fund Initiative to a successful close.

The endowed funds will be invested and maintained permanently, with investment income going to deserving graduate students in the form of fellowships or awards to help cover educational or living expenses. Each endowment will support one or more students each year, depending on the donors’ wishes. The first graduate student awards from the Soderquist initiative will be made this fall.

The matching fund initiative was so successful that UC Davis will be looking for other donors who may be interested in encouraging additional giving through another matching fund program, according to Paul Prokop, interim associate vice chancellor for university development.

The Hillyers’ gift was also motivated by their appreciation for their fulfilling careers at UC Davis, and a desire to give back, said Silvia Hillyer.

“For us, it wasn’t just work. It wasn’t just a job. And I think a lot of people feel that way,” she said.

Their graduate student award will alternate each year between a graduate student in ecology and a graduate student in engineering, the two areas in which Silvia and Ted worked.

The effort was launched by Gibeling, former Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef and other colleagues.

Asking faculty and staff to consider giving to support graduate students was a natural fit, Gibeling said, because many faculty and staff work closely with graduate students, understand the importance of their work, and are aware of the challenges that graduate students sometimes face in affording their education.

Nonetheless, Gibeling said he was deeply gratified to see faculty and staff so eager to participate in the initiative, which was launched during a difficult economic climate and a year of furloughs for UC Davis employees.

“For members of the campus community to give during such an economically difficult year was truly inspiring,” Gibeling said.

Graduate students rely on a variety of sources to finance their educations. Some work as teaching assistants or research assistants; others receive financial aid in the form or grants or loans; and some receive fellowships or awards supported by donors or other sources.

“Financial support gives graduate students the freedom to come up with new ideas,” Gibeling said. “And even modest awards can make a huge difference in helping UC Davis recruit the most promising students and enabling those students to dedicate themselves to their research.”

Gibeling and his wife also contributed to the effort, creating the Jeffery and Marsha Gibeling Graduate Student Support Fund to enable graduate programs to offer recruitment incentives to top applicants.

Katie Kolesar, a Ph.D. candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Chair of the Graduate Student Association, has benefitted from fellowship support, and says she appreciates the generosity faculty and staff have shown through the Soderquist initiative.

“They help to shape the university in so many ways, and this is just another way they are helping,” Kolesar said.

Sociology professor Bill McCarthy and his wife, Ana Bettencourt, gave to continue an award initially established by Leon Mayhew, a former chair of the sociology department. Their gift will endow the award, which will go to the sociology graduate student who completes the best research paper each year. It will be named the Leon Mayhew Prize.

“I think many faculty recognize the importance of awards as a way of motivating students and to communicate how much we value their accomplishments,” McCarthy said.

Endowments were established in all four of UC Davis’ colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science — as well as in the Office of Graduate Studies, University Outreach and International Programs, School of Education, School of Medicine, School of Veterinary Medicine, and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

Soderquist earned his master’s in 1973 and doctorate in 1978 from UC Davis, both in agricultural and environmental chemistry. He went on to found and lead several high-tech companies in the greater Sacramento area, and also served as chair of the UC Davis Foundation Board, president of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association and alumni representative to the UC Board of Regents. He died in 2004. The $500,000 in matching funds for graduate support was just a portion of the $5.5 million bequest Soderquist made to UC Davis.