Crowning scholars

An interview team weighs the responses of a student in the Tomlinson Hall Library. They are (from left)
Steve Zinram, President of the Case Alumni Association, Professor Sunniva Collins,
Janna Greer, CAA Manager, Donor Relations and Grants, Tom Conlon, CAA Chief Financial Officer,
Mark Sherman '85, Ed Cordiano '97, and Joe Fakult '90

As they help to select Junior-Senior Scholarship recipients, alumni meet the new generation--and recall their own college experience

By Robert L. Smith

A young man with a mop of reddish-brown hair sat at the head of a conference table, fidgeting slightly. He faced eight men and women--the interview team that would decide whether he received a scholarship to help pay for his junior year.

He had already described his hometown, his career goals and why he chose to attend Case Western Reserve University. Now came the clincher, the question that might settle the matter.

“Tell us what makes you different from other students,” Joe Fakult, ’90, said in a soft, easygoing voice “What’s unique about you?”

The young man paused, drew a breath, and shared a personal odyssey. During sophomore year of high school, an exhausting illness kept him home most of the school year, he said. With hours to kill, he began studying aircraft design. He even dragged himself out of bed long enough to build his first radio-controlled plane.

Today, he manages the chronic disease well enough to play club soccer while pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. That high school nightmare launched a dream.

 “That was an awful time for me, looking back,” he said. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

When he left the room, the judges stared wide-eyed at one another, absorbing what they had been told. Then they bent over papers and recorded their scores.

Who deserves help becoming a Case engineer, mathematician or scientist? That’s a question carefully pondered by people who believe it strikes at the core mission of an alumni association. Each February, alumni join faculty and staff of the Case Alumni Association to interview nearly 150 students seeking to be crowned Junior-Senior Scholars.

In early March, the selection committee awarded a little more than $500,000—in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $9,000—to 117 young men and women attending the Case School of Engineering or the College of Arts and Sciences.

For students, the grants offer academic distinction and often sorely-needed cash. Some said the scholarship would help decide if they were able to return to school next year, or graduate without burdensome debt.

For alumni, the selection process offers a chance to help the CAA to perform a fiduciary responsibility and something more. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with their college experience and to meet the new generation, in whose anxious faces they often see themselves.

“We all had to pay that tuition bill,” said Fakult, the chair of the 2018 Scholarship Committee. “These kids have some of the same ambitions. They’re a pretty select group. You don’t survive here unless you’re talented. What we’re really looking for is leadership.”

A senior engineer for Safran Power in Twinsburg, Fakult has served on the scholarship committee for eight years.  He takes seriously a process he believes supports the future of the alumni association and the university.

“In a sense, this is Step One in recruiting the next generation to our organization,” he said. “We’re trying to identify the students who have that capacity to support our school.”

Working closely with Janna Greer, CAA’s Manager, Donor Relations and Grants, Fakult helps orchestrates a process that demands empathy, curiosity and stamina.

Many are called…

During the last week in February, students began reporting to the stately library on the second floor of Tomlinson Hall shortly after noon. They arrived one at a time, 10 minutes apart, for five days, until nearly 140 had been interviewed.

The alumni worked in rotating shifts, with many pulling interview duty for only a single afternoon. Even that exposed them to the goals and challenges of dozens of students.

For Harry Farmer, ’55, MS ’65, it’s a glimpse into a new generation gaining confidence. He marvels at the changes he witnesses in a 10-minute interview.

“They come in shaky, a little scared. By the end they’re outgoing, expressing themselves.

“It just rejuvenates me,” he said. “It makes me feel positive about our future leaders.”

To reach the conference table, each student had achieved at least a 3.0 grade point average and been recommended by a faculty member. The committee members were also aware of their financial need, as reported by the university, and their involvement in volunteer activities and campus groups.

The interview offered a chance to get to know them a little better; to judge composure and sincerity, and perhaps discern the achievers from the strivers.

“I always look for a spark,” said selection committee member Donald Feke '76, MS '77, a professor of chemical engineering and the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education. “Is the student taking hold of their own education—and taking advantage of everything the university offers?”

Associate Professor Sunniva Collins, MS ’91, PhD ’95, teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering and many of the applicants are her students.

“It just like to see what they’re all doing. To see what they’re all jazzed about,” she said.

But she’s also looking for a special “Case quality” that goes beyond academics.

 “Are you also well-rounded enough that you’re thinking outside of yourself? I think that’s what really separates the Case graduate—the ability to walk in and take a leadership position and make something happen,” she said.

So, what’s special about you?

A young woman took the seat at the head of the table and waited as the judges scanned her application. She wore a conservative suit and a look of expectation.  She laughed at a committee member’s observation that she belonged to a dazzling array of student groups. Her favorite? The Global Health Design Collaborative. It took her to Uganda to design a clean water project.

She divulged that she loves engineering research, and is keen on working in Navy labs, but also that she took out a $30,000 loan at 10 percent interest to pay this year’s tuition bill.

Next year, she’s not sure if she can afford to come back. “My parents help but the rest is up to me,” she said.

Tuition was a big concern to the woman who followed her, a third-year student from Ann Arbor, MI. Family savings covered the first three years at CWRU, she said, “The last year’s kind of on me.”

An internship in machining at a Willoughby manufacturer helped her to pay the bills, and fired her passion for mechanical engineering, to some dismay back home.

“No one in my family is an engineer,” she explained.

The selectors lobbed the same general questions at each candidate, but the answers were far from predictable, as they reflected myriad backgrounds, personalities and circumstances.

Some responses required translation. A petite young woman from suburban Chicago identified herself as a member of the campus Quiddich Club, adding, “I play beater.”

A CAA staff member explained to the committee that Quiddich is the marque sport at Hogwarts, where Harry Potter matriculated, and that Case indeed fields a team.

The eager applicant added that she dances with the Mather Modern Dance Club and thinks wind energy is the future.

Her uncommon quality? “I have this unnatural optimism--and I like to share it!”

Students voice fears, concerns, and surprises

Students were all asked to name something about Case they wish they could change, as if with a magic wand. Many of the women cited security concerns, saying they did not always feel safe on and around campus.

“I won’t walk home alone from the library after dark,” one young women said.

Young men were more likely to cite a lack of school spirit, which they say is most evident at sporting events. A member of the Spartan marching band said he often feels like he and his bandmates are half the crowd at football games.

No one lacked enthusiasm for science and engineering, but many voiced a desire to explore other sides of campus, even the humanities. Asked to name a favorite course, the students often cited SAGES classes like fly fishing, meditation and Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry. “Most of the class was engineers,” a young man said.

Standout qualities were as diverse as the students. One man proclaimed that he was, unlike most college students, an early riser. A young woman taught herself Spanish to enrich her travel experiences. A young man said he taught himself to play the ukulele, then taught others in his dorm, adding, “I’ve kind of started something.”

Another young man said he believes his family background lends him a wider view of the world: Mom’s Jewish and Dad’s a former Catholic priest—from Portugal.

Not surprisingly, most were complimentary of the university as they sought to impress its representatives. But many were quite specific about what they liked and what they discovered, often to their surprise. They extolled “amazing professors,” research opportunities, the campus and the University Circle neighborhood.

“I don’t think I would have found the opportunities that I found at Case anywhere else,” said one young women, a second-year student in electrical engineering. “The people, the clubs, the access to research. It’s just been amazing. “

The talent and enthusiasm of the students makes it difficult for the selectors, who have a limited pool of money to disperse.

New generation, familiar drive

Ed Cordiano, who earned his mechanical engineering degree from the Case School of Engineering in 1997, was serving on the scholarship committee for the first time. He was surprised to see so much of the drive that he recalled from his own college days.

“It’s a new crop of kids, but the challenges they face are still very similar,” said Cordiano, the owner and president of CMIT Solutions of Cleveland East & Southwest. “They don’t have a lot of money, yet you see the things they do to pay for a university like Case, maybe to pay for one year. You hear that, you remember what it takes.” 

Fakult, who will receive the Meritorious Service Award at Homecoming 2018, is hoping the alumni association can find a way to boost the scholarships. Grants averaging $4,000 and $5,000 don’t make much of a dent in tuition bill that runs in the tens of thousands and that could total $67,000, he noted.

“We’re a 10 percent off coupon,” he said. “We need to make a more meaningful contribution.”

He plans to step down after serving nearly a decade on the scholarship committee, though he suspects he will miss it. Across eight years, he has interviewed about 1,400 students and awarded just over $5 million in scholarship monies, according to calculations by the Case Alumni Association.

He recommends the job.

“It’s a fun thing to do,” Fakult said. “Not everybody wants to get involved in raising money. But distributing money? It’s a fun thing to do.”

For information on the scholarship program, or to volunteer for the selection committee, contact Janna Greer:, 216-368-3647.

scholarship 2018
There are plenty of light-hearted moments in the scholarship interview. "It's a lot fun," says Joe Fakult, right. He's stepping down after eight years on the scholarship committee.