An anonymous donor is helping to diversify the fields of sustainability and environmental sciences by creating a scholarship that will fully cover the cost of attendance for one African American woman at Furman per year.
The Marjorie Schmidt Scholarship has been made possible by a $1.3 million gift to the university in memory of the longtime Greenville, South Carolina, resident. The scholarship will be awarded annually to one female African American student to “prepare for a career in sustainability or environmental science,” according to the donor.
Schmidt, who died in 2004, was a benefactor of local environmental and conservation causes. Upstate Forever annually recognizes “an individual who has supported Upstate Forever or has supported local conservation efforts consistently and quietly for 10 years or longer” in honor of Marjorie Schmidt and her commitment to the environmental causes. Upstate Forever, a non-profit conservation organization that works to protect critical land, water and the unique character of the Upstate of South Carolina, aligns its efforts with The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities.
The Marjorie Schmidt Scholarship not only reflects Schmidt’s lifelong passion for conservation, it also supports the university’s long-term diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. As Furman continues to increase the socioeconomic diversity of its student body, scholarships such as this have become an important recruitment tool. The scholarship also supports the work of Suresh Muthukrishnan, professor and chair of Furman’s Department of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences, and the efforts of other Furman faculty to diversity the field of sustainability and earth science at a national level.
“One of the bigger problems for our discipline is that students are not exposed to these fields of studies in high school,” said Muthukrishnan. “Since sustainability sciences is totally new, nobody is teaching that in high schools. From that perspective, students come to college having no clue about this as a possibility for them to pursue as an undergraduate degree.”
Furman professors have relied on identifying students who are surprised to enjoy the course work during introductory sustainability and environmental sciences courses. Many of these students realize that they want to change the world and contribute to the communities around them. Yet, these programs haven’t seen students of color participate at the same rates as their white peers.
Muthukrishnan estimates that the current makeup of sustainability and environmental science programs at Furman is about 60% female and 35% male, with students of color representing a very small proportion. While 22% of Furman’s student body consists of non-white students, he estimates that amounts to about one or two students across Furman’s sustainability and environmental science programs, per year. This leads to an even smaller number who go on to graduate and doctoral programs in these fields and become sustainability leaders.
“I think the only way to fix this is to bring more people and proactively reach out to candidates of color who may have interest in these areas and attract them to Furman,” said Muthukrishnan. “Having a dedicated scholarship definitely will put us on that radar where people who are interested in (these fields) will see Furman as a possible home for students of color to participate in sustainability science. We are really grateful and excited about this scholarship, and we hope more people will establish scholarships like this.”