Gratitude Really Matters: Behind $10 Million For Campus Scholarships

Belmont University in Nashville recently announced a $10 million gift from alumnus Milton Johnson and his wife, Denice, to create the R. Milton and Denice Johnson Bridges to Belmont Endowed Scholarship Fund. Originally launched in 2013, Bridges to Belmont was designed to enroll promising students from Metro Nashville Public Schools who may not have previously been able to consider Belmont as an option. Bridges Scholars are currently selected from four Metro Nashville Public Schools, and most of these students are first-generation college students.

We've written about the enduring interest that funders have in bankrolling scholarships. Compared to other forms of grantmaking, scholarships are pretty cut and dry, and a lot of different kinds of funders have supported them.

Related: Simple and Clear: Why Funders Still Love Scholarships

Still, some of these funders have a particular interest in scholarships because of their own educational journey, which is a lesson worth reiterating.

I wrote recently about a huge $50 million scholarship gift by University of Madison alumni couple Albert Nicholas and his wife Nancy. In that story, Nicholas got his start at Wisconsin with the help of a scholarship.

Related: When Big Gifts Go To Campus Scholarships, It's Worth Taking a Closer Look

While the Johnsons' $10 million gift isn't quite as large, there are similar elements of gratitude involved. Johnson is currently the chair and CEO of Hospital Corporation of America. Johnson began at that company in the 1980s, and prior to that, a stint at Ernst & Young as a CPA. Johnson has clearly enjoyed quite a bit of success, but his younger years also involved struggle. Johnson attended Stratford High School in Nashville, working multiple jobs to help his single mom support their family. He enrolled at Nashville State, juggling classes and full-time work. During this time he began dating his wife, Denice, who was studying at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt. Johnson was eventually offered a scholarship to Belmont College, and the rest is history.

As Johnson puts it: "As a high school student, I faced similar challenges as many of our Bridges to Belmont scholarship recipients. My Belmont scholarship was a life-changing experience for me, and [Denise and I] want other Nashville public high school graduates to have the same opportunities at Belmont. We want these students to know that Belmont believes in them — we believe in them — and there are no limits to what they can achieve in life."

It's easy to read a quote like that and be moved, but still not necessarily fully appreciate the huge role these kinds of elements have in shaping philanthropy. It's the stuff that fuels more headlining work like medical research, sure, but also the important work of ensuring all kinds of students can afford a good education. This is, in part, why we've said that funders love scholarships.

It's also worth noting that after Denice graduated from Peabody, she taught locally for nearly a decade at several schools, including the Kennedy Center Experimental School (now Susan Gray School on Peabody’s campus).

The R. Milton and Denice Johnson Bridges to Belmont Endowed Scholarship Fund will help provide Bridges to Belmont Scholars with full four-year scholarships that cover tuition, room, board, required fees, and books — with funds supplemented by state and federal grants.

Related - Campus Cash: Scholarships