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Annual Brunch creates connections beyond scholarship support

Almost every spring for the last three decades, hundreds of scholarship recipients, donors and their respective guests, as well as university faculty and staff, have gathered for the annual Scholarship Honor Brunch. The weather, often unpredictable, has allowed guests to don their springtime Sunday best one year and required their winter coats the next; but the lightning that strikes when a donor and individual beneficiary meet is always guaranteed.

Started in 1993, the scholarship reception, or “Tea” as it was referred to for several years, was started by the development arm of Marshall University to bring together the beneficiaries of privately funded scholarships with the philanthropists who made their awards possible.

Dr. Carolyn Hunter, the vice president for development when she retired in 2003, recalled fondly the desire the donors had to meet the students.

“At the time, we were surprised at the extent donors would want to be involved with their scholarship recipients,” Hunter said, “but folks loved interacting with their students.”

Jean Augustine, an administrative assistant in the Office of Development for 12 years in the mid-90s to late 2000s, grew the event from more than 100 people in attendance to crowds of 300-plus by the time of her retirement in 2007. Participants today still remember the receptions that Augustine coordinated and how she often allowed folks in the audience to “pass the mic” around.

“People enjoyed sharing their history with the group in attendance,” said Augustine, who encouraged Marshall students to attend scholarship receptions as well as write thank you letters to those from whom they were supported. “It does matter when people say thank you.”

Hunter remembers paying $43 dollars a semester for tuition when she attended Marshall for her undergraduate degree in the mid-1960s, and understands that as the years have passed, scholarships have become increasingly more vital to students and the accessibility of higher education.

Dr. Ron Area, CEO and senior vice president for development of the Marshall University Foundation since 2007, delivered a special welcome to more than 400 students and donors who attended this year’s event in the Don Morris Room of the Memorial Student Center.

“The Scholarship Honor Brunch brings together scholarship beneficiaries and award benefactors and highlights our mission to maximize continuous financial support for Marshall University and its students,” Area said. “We are absolutely committed to increasing the accessibility of education for our students and are thankful for the benevolence of our donors who truly support their Marshall family through their donations as well as their presence at this event.”

Marshall President Brad D. Smith and his wife Alys established their family scholarship in 2014 prior to serving as the president and first lady of Marshall University. President Smith, who served as the featured speaker for this year’s event, spoke about the role scholarships play in Marshall’s past, present and future success.

“Education is the great equalizer, but we know that the cost of an education is becoming more burdensome on our students,” Smith said. “Together, we have already built a strong foundation at Marshall, and I cannot wait to see what we can do to ensure Marshall for all, Marshall forever.”

To Nikki Riniti, a rising senior and theatre major who grew up in Wayne, West Virginia, scholarships are not only economically important, but they are also motivational.

“My scholarships are important to me for numerous reasons,” Riniti said. “They bring such a financial relief for me, especially as a first-generation college student. They act as a reminder of what I am working toward and show that my dedication is acknowledged. Through scholarships, I know that I am not only recognized but also appreciated.”

As a recipient of the W. B. “Bart” and Doris Andrews Fine Arts Scholarship, Riniti enjoyed being able to spend one-on-one time with the donor of her scholarship, Mrs. Doris Andrews, who often attends art exhibitions, concerts, and for Riniti, theatre performances, to support her scholarship recipients.

“She never fails to congratulate me on my work,” Riniti said. “She sends me sweet letters including newspaper clippings about my shows I am in. With our busy schedules, it is rare that I can see her in person, so the brunch is a wonderful opportunity for us to chat. We even got our first picture together!”

Riniti not only attended the 2023 Scholarship Honor Brunch as a recipient, she also performed in an interdisciplinary effort with the College of Arts and Media’s School of Theatre and Dance, along with the School of Music, put on as part of the program’s student entertainment; a sneak peek of a then, upcoming production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“The brunch also provided the theatre an opportunity to perform, which gives other people a look at what we do,” Riniti said. “We had so many people who had never seen a performance by us that were astounded by our work. That was the greatest gift of the brunch.”

With over 800 donor households and more than 1,600 individual students invited each year, Riniti recognized that the Scholarship Honor Brunch is a unique event with the diversity in the honors represented, the intermingling of different backgrounds and majors and the opportunity for students and donors alike to learn from one another.

“At the table with my donor were all types of different people and I got to hear about their programs,” Riniti said. “Amazing people got to share their talents with each other.”

As a coordinator for the event since 2013, Krystle Davis, senior director of donor relations with the Foundation, believes it’s the relationships that are formed between the donors and students that make this event unlike any other event on campus, and a highlight for participants who annually look forward to attending.

“Each table is thoughtfully curated with students and their specific donors, whenever possible,” Davis said. “With a list of thousands as possible attendees, it is truly a blessing when multiple donors and their specific students are both able to attend and be seated with one another. Our students are so very thankful for the impact scholarships have on the trajectory of their career as a student and beyond, and they truly enjoy being able to share a meal with the person who is directly involved in making their dream of an education, come true.”

At once a yearly letter, the Foundation sends bi-annual reports to the contacts of the scholarships that shares not only the financial status of the fund but the name, hometown, major, college and class year of the recipients. While the donors appreciate receiving those updates, Augustine believes there’s no substitute for the meetings over brunch.

“Nothing can take the place of face-to-face interactions between the student recipient and scholarship supporter,” Augustine said.

Dr. Hunter appreciated how the event has carried on and grown since its inception and echoed that, while the program and attendees of the event may vary from year to year, the importance of community fostered through this event has remained constant.

“Students and donors coming together to tell their stories is wonderful,” Hunter said.

To learn how to establish a scholarship to help students at Marshall, contact Krystle Davis at the Marshall University Foundation by phone at 304-696-6781 or by email at