Nearly a third of Stony Brook undergraduate students in 2020 were the first in their families to attend college. However, with that remarkable achievement also come persistent challenges.
As a first-generation American raised by a single mother, Stony Brook alumna Hildegarde G. Weigel, BS ’61, knows those challenges firsthand. A college degree seemed to be an impossibility for Weigel, as her mother had to work multiple jobs just to pay the rent for the converted garage in which they lived. But when Weigel was admitted to Stony Brook University, where tuition was free to New York State residents at the time, she became the first in her family to enroll in college. She eventually received a scholarship to cover the cost of fees and books, which enabled her to stay in school.
One of only 25 members of Stony Brook’s first-ever graduating class, Weigel earned a degree in mathematics and built a successful career as a software engineer.
Now retired, Weigel looks back on her experiences at Stony Brook as transformative, and she wants to give others the same opportunities. With a passionate belief in the power of higher education, Weigel created the Hildegarde Kurnol ’61 Endowed Scholarship to support first-generation college students who are pursuing a degree in music or mathematics.
“I owe my life to Stony Brook University, for the education I received that allowed me to have a career in the mathematical field,” says Weigel. “I decided to set up a scholarship to help first-generation students obtain a good education so that they too can pursue a career of their choosing.”
A longtime friend of the University, Weigel also joined her fellow Class of 1961 alumni to create the First Alumni Endowed Scholarship for first-generation students at Stony Brook and has since made several gifts to help fund the scholarship.
Sophomore Jessica Jung is following in Weigel’s footsteps as a first-generation student and has overcome significant challenges to attend Stony Brook. But her drive to achieve, to think bigger and pursue her twin passions in medicine and astronomy, helped her transcend those obstacles. That is, until the pandemic hit.
“COVID-19 struck my family very hard. Financially, we were struggling to meet necessary expenses, and mentally, the financial distress brought a dark cloud over all our heads. I felt I had no choice but to drop out to help my family,” she says.
Then, she got the good news: She’d been awarded a Coca-Cola First Generation College Scholarship, given to a cohort of 10 first-generation students for four years. Recipients must be participants in Stony Brook’s innovative Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) undergraduate program
“When I found out I received the scholarship, I was speechless,” Jung says. “It felt like a message to never give up on my education because of financial hardship.”
Support from the Coca-Cola First Generation College Scholarship helped avert the crisis for Jung. She says she is now confidently back on track and on her way to fulfilling her lifelong career aspirations in the emerging field of aerospace medicine.
In a year of extraordinary challenges, alumni and friends came together in a remarkable way to support our students, faculty, healthcare workers and patients. For a wider view at the vast impact of your support, take a look at this year’s Stony Brook Foundation Annual Report to Donors.