Woodruff Scholarship at 30

The Woodruff Scholarship celebrates three decades of alumni—and the newest class of thirty-three.

On November 9, 1979, the front page of the New York Times trumpeted news of a $100 million gift to Emory from Robert W. Woodruff. If it seems odd that a philanthropic gesture, however grand, would make the cover of the nation’s newspaper of record, consider it evidence of a growing awareness that Emory was beginning a deliberate transformation, shaped by the pursuit of academic prestige and a rise to national prominence. Part of Woodruff’s record gift targeted students who were Ivy League–bound and whom Emory wanted to recruit in its “fight for greater recognition,” as the Times described it. The Woodruff Scholarship, a full ride earmarked for top students who met distinct criteria, was a centerpiece of this endeavor.

Instead of heading to Harvard and other schools in the Northeast, those high achievers came in batches of a dozen or so a year to Emory College. While the WoodPEC and other buildings arose from Woodruff’s generosity, the early classes of Woodruff Scholars were not as noticeable. Funded by an Atlanta icon who was seven decades older, they followed his lead of calling little attention to themselves. They didn’t set themselves apart; no acronym after their names, no secret handshake—just a shared dedication to the best an Emory education had to offer. 

“Robert Woodruff was an imposing guy, in his nineties when we met him, with a handshake like iron,” said Haynes Brooke 85C, one of the first twelve Woodruff Scholars, who became a Hollywood actor (and stars in Jimmy Dean commercials as the sun character). “He looked us all in the eye, and when he looked at me, he was extremely gracious. Yet I felt very unsubstantial. I got the feeling that he thought, ‘There’s not much to this kid yet,’ and that felt like a challenge. At the same time, he had endowed my scholarship, so he had invested extraordinary generosity in me. I felt supported and challenged at the same time.” 

This fall, as Brooke and the inaugural class celebrate their thirtieth reunion, the largest recruiting class of Woodruff Scholars will enter Emory College for the first time—thirty-three of them. They chose Emory over other top-tier schools partly because other Woodruff Scholars helped persuade them. 

“Seeing all the great finalists made me realize how blessed I am to be a Woodruff Scholar,” says Victoria Umutoni 18C, a sophomore human health and economics major from Kigali, Rwanda. “It was great to share my experience at Emory and hear about their dreams for the future.”

During their campus visit in April, finalists heard from Woodruff alumni Doug Shipman 96C, founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; Greg Vaughn 87C, CEO of leading orthopedic braces manufacturer Bauerfiend USA and the first Woodruff Scholar named an Emory trustee; Matthew Biggerstaff 01OX 03C 06PH, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Emily Cumbie-Drake 10C, the farm-to-school coordinator for Georgia Organics; and Joanne Abrams Mello 99C 99G, chief counsel to SouthStar Energy Services. 

More Woodruff alumni pitched in to recruit virtually. Holly Gregory 96C, a children’s TV producer in New York and voice-over director for Dora the Explorer, helped sway Leigh Schlecht of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, a published poet and founder of a literary magazine who had a tempting offer from the University of California Berkeley.

“We have a few things in common—I was also an English and creative writing person and went on to do a master of letters via the Emory Bobby Jones Scholarship in Scotland,” Gregory wrote in an email to Schlecht. “Congratulations [on the offer of a Woodruff Scholarship]—what an honor, what a gift—it must be a tribute to your uniqueness."

Diverse talents and interests

Becca Bowles of Athens, Texas, chose Emory for its astronomy major on her way to a career in the sky. She plans to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate in astrophysics, possibly working with a space corporation or university on the life of stars.

“During my career I plan to apply for NASA’s astronaut program,” she says. “I think that the Woodruff Scholarship will prove to be invaluable to my achieving this goal. It provides such a strong network of connections. It also will allow me to be surrounded by people with dreams as large as my own and to learn from them.”

Matthew Ribel of Chantilly, Virginia, is preparing for a career as a pediatric neurosurgeon, inspired by his work in a therapeutic riding program for developmentally disabled children. He played varsity lacrosse for four years, conducted independent environmental engineering research, and founded biPAC-tisan, a bipartisan political action committee and consulting group.

“It was the exposure to so many enthusiastic students and faculty members that was a huge part of my decision to pick Emory," he says. "I’ve never seen a group of people so in love with a place.”

Amanda Obando Polio of Santa Tecla Libertad, El Salvador, chose Emory due to her interest in international politics and addressing social inequalities. On her campus visit, Emory’s openness to offering financial aid to undocumented students impressed her the most.

“If you ask anyone from Latin America if they have an illegal immigrant relative in the United States, it is very likely that they will say that they do,” she says. “It was very important to me that the university I decided to attend was open to tackling issues regarding this minority group. So the fact that [the Emory administration] fearlessly disclosed information on this topic immediately convinced me that Emory is the continuously progressive university community I want to be involved in.”

Kieren Helmn of Preston, Great Britain, plans to study business administration and classical civilizations. He managed his school’s rocketry program, which twice reached the national finals. He runs a website that gives advice to young entrepreneurs, and Emory’s support of start-ups was one reason he bypassed Brown and Penn. He sees himself starting his own business, perhaps in the STEM arena.

“I anticipate that the Woodruff Scholarship will help me achieve these goals by connecting me with other scholars who have similar passions,” he says. “Some of the current scholars’ stories have inspired me and made me believe that anything is possible when you find the right group of people who share the same vision as you do.”

Willi Freire of Boca Raton, Florida, is interested in studying law and interning at The Carter Center. He is passionate about community service, and he spent two years volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.

“I see myself carrying on the ideals of Robert Woodruff wholeheartedly,” he says. “I plan to challenge myself educationally and never take yes or no for an answer, but find out the reasoning and explanation behind those one-dimensional answers. I also want to be a leader both in the classroom and in many organizations at Emory, and contribute to my community by continuing my involvement in Habitat for Humanity and growing as a person.”

Each new class of Woodruff Scholars sets a new bar for excellence, building on the achievements of the generations before them.

Opportunity and Obligation

In 1985, Emory College’s first twelve Woodruff Scholars graduated, including cardiologist Russ Bailey 85C. As the first in his family to attend a four-year college, Bailey majored in biology and philosophy, went to medical school, and has practiced cardiology in Charlotte, North Carolina, for almost two decades. In this excerpt of a speech at Emory in May 2015, Bailey challenges the Woodruff Scholar graduates to continue to explore and achieve for the good of others.

In the early 1980s the program was a work-in-progress. While we had group events, retreats, and opportunities to meet with faculty and administrative staff, there were times we struggled as to what our collective contribution should be to the college. We quickly—and I think humbly and wisely—recognized there were all sorts of creative and engaged and bright people throughout the college doing great things. While the twelve of us were a reflection of the very diverse students at Emory, we had no monopoly on talent. We concluded we should focus on doing the various things that we were passionate about, share those interests when possible and engage our fellow students, and simply be active participants in the university. 

This was a group of very different individuals who, after Emory, have gone on to include a computer systems consultant, five physicians, one professor of world language and literature in Oregon, one professor of English in New Zealand, a teacher of math in Seattle, a city council member in New Jersey, a social entrepreneur in Maryland, and the Jimmy Dean sunshine man.

I have found hints that [being a Woodruff Scholar] is still a special experience. This program has not been limited to bringing in outstanding students as recipients of these scholarships, but because it exists, Emory attracts many more talented students who might not otherwise have come. In his annual report to the Board of Trustees in 1985, [President James T.] Laney described his vision that Emory was creating a “community of scholars.” I would say he succeeded. I know that if I applied today, I wouldn’t have a prayer of making the cut . . . but I would still be excited about being a student at Emory.

You have had extraordinary opportunities and experiences. As you take your next steps toward careers or further study, you now have the opportunity and obligation to define what it means to be a Woodruff by what you do going forward. You will define it in your careers and communities, in your family life, and in your relationship with the university. You will also define it in your relationships with each other. And as time passes—and it will pass quickly, let me assure you—your appreciation for what this experience has meant to you will deepen considerably.

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