Casey’s Legacy Helps First Generation College Students Succeed

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COLLEGE STATION, When Texas A&M University junior DeAndre Ward ’14 graduates, he’d like to find a career in materials production, testing or research.

Such a goal is none too shabby for any Texas A&M engineering major. But it’s especially impressive considering Ward is the first in his family to attend college.

“My mom and dad—really everybody—are pretty proud,” said Ward, a Houston native. “They’re especially proud not only that I’m studying engineering, but that I’m going to a prestigious school like Texas A&M.”

Ward is one of some 2,000 Regents’ Scholars enrolled at Texas A&M. His scholarship was created from an endowed gift by Lea ’95 and Loftus ’93 Fitzwater III.

Ward’s mother is an administrative assistant and his father is a police officer. Although they did not have the opportunity to attend college themselves, they always encouraged their son to do so. Ward was a good student in high school and he, too, believed college was in his future.

Particularly adept at math and science, he decided to major in engineering, but entered Texas A&M unsure which engineering discipline to pursue. After taking a materials science class his sophomore year, he determined that mechanical engineering was the place for him.

Involvement with Texas A&M’s AggieSat Lab—a program housed within the Department of Aerospace Engineering—is giving Ward a taste of what a mechanical engineering career might entail. AggieSat students spend several years building a functioning satellite that will be launched upon completion. Ward’s work ensures the satellite’s design and structure is statically sound.

Ward also hosts a weekly show called Limit Break on KANMstudent radio and works at The Corner Bar and Grill in College Station’s Northgate district.

A Twofold Gift

When you ask Lea ’95 and Loftus ’93 Fitzwater about their recollections of Texas A&M during the 1990s, the word “bonfire” comes up a lot—a whole lot.

As an Aggie Bonfire crew chief, Loftus Fitzwater’s job entailed spreading enthusiasm and involvement for the annual event. His dormitory, Walton Hall, was a designated “load dorm,” meaning residents had the unenviable task of heaving cut logs onto trucks.

To Lea Fitzwater, Bonfire encompassed the Aggie spirit, bringing together students as one big family. Among her fondest memories of Texas A&M is meeting big groups at Sbisa Dining Hall before going off to cut trees.

It was through these Bonfire connections that Lea Kahanek, a biology major, and Loftus Fitzwater, a mechanical engineering major, eventually met. Their first date was at the legendary Dixie Chicken.

Soon after he graduated, Loftus Fitzwater switched career goals and decided to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at The University of Texas at Austin. His career in the investment field eventually lured the couple to Chicago.

After achieving some business success, the Fitzwaters had a heartfelt discussion about how they could help someone who “needed a leg up.” Going to Texas A&M, they agreed, had ultimately determined the course of their lives.

As Loftus Fitzwater explained: “It’s very easy to write a check, but what we really wanted to do was to write that check and feel good in knowing we were going to help somebody take that next step. We wanted to help students who couldn’t financially get to that next level so that when they graduate, the world is their oyster. Higher education really opens those doors that can change a life.”

Lea Fitzwater added, “We wanted our gift to actually get someone to college— not just help them pay for it.”

With help from the Texas A&M Foundation, the Fitzwaters found a Texas A&M scholarship program that fit the bill: the Regents’ Scholars Program.

Created in 2003, the Regents’ Scholars Program was established by Dr. Robert Gates, then president of Texas A&M, and funded through the university’s operating budget. When the scholarship funding method changed from single scholarships to endowments, fundraising for the program was transferred to the Texas A&M Foundation. During the past decade, nearly 6,000 students, including Ward, have achieved their dreams of attending Texas A&M thanks to the program.

Regents’ Scholarships are designed for students who not only will become the first in their families to receive college degrees, but whose total annual family income is less than $40,000. Roughly 600 new Aggies each year are awarded the four-year scholarship, which varies in amount. Ward receives about $5,000 a year through the scholarship.

An endowed Regents’ Scholarship can be created with an outright gift—or a planned gift—of $100,000. Each scholarship supports one student for four years, and then begins again with a new student. Because it is endowed, the scholarship will support Texas A&M students forever.

The Fitzwaters had another personal reason for creating a Regents’ Scholarship endowment. In 2006, they were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a baby girl. Shortly before the due date, they learned the heartbreaking news that baby Casey had not made it. As part of the healing process, they felt compelled to make some kind of significant contribution in her memory.

“If you think about it,” said Loftus Fitzwater, “we would have been sending her to school anyway, just like we will our two sons. By establishing this endowment, we’re spending the money we would have spent on Casey’s education, but on a perpetual basis.”

Designed For Success

Along with financial assistance, Regents’ Scholars are provided the kind of academic and social assistance vital to the success of a first-generation college student. During their freshman year, the scholars participate in an academic success program as determined by their college. Engineering students, like Ward, participate in the Engineering Success Program and live in the Engineering Living-Learning Community (LLC) in Mosher Hall.

By living in an LLC, Ward was not only clustered with other engineering students, but was offered opportunities to attend seminars on personal development; visit with upper-division engineering students who served as resident advisers, peer-mentors and tutors; interact with engineering faculty; and network with members of the local engineering community.

The relationships he established with the engineering peer-mentors, Ward said, were valuable, especially in terms of learning how to study and preparing for finals. “That transition from high school to college can be kind of rough,” he said.

With all of the financial, academic and social support offered by the Regents’ Scholars Program, the retention rate of these students is an impressive 90 percent.

Financial Reality

Looking back, Ward recalls he knew he wanted to come to Texas A&M. But he seriously considered other colleges, as well, not knowing whether he could afford Texas A&M’s price tag.

The Casey Fitzwater Endowed Regents’ Scholarship changed all that.

“It’s one thing to want to go to A&M,” Ward said, “but it’s another thing when you know you’re going to get some help along the way.”