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Scholarship donors and recipients forge longlasting bonds

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Fourteen years ago, Anna Raytcheva learned that she would be able to attend Princeton thanks to the generosity of alumnus Gary Capen, who had endowed the scholarship that she had been awarded.

Once she arrived at Princeton from her home in Bulgaria, Raytcheva discovered that Capen, a member of the class of 1959, would provide her with much more than just financial assistance. His family would become her support system in the United States.

sophomore and donor

Undergraduates who receive scholarships often exchange letters with the donor, and sometimes the bond flourishes into a close friendship. Sophomore Eva Vertes and alumnus Philip Webster, who established the scholarship she was awarded, correspond often via e-mail about current events, science and her experiences at Princeton. They are pictured at last year's Alumni Day.

Raytcheva has celebrated Thanksgiving with Capen's wife, Joan, and their children, enjoyed Broadway shows with them and gone ice skating on a lake near Capen's house. Capen sends Raytcheva newspaper articles that he thinks will interest her. When they realized recently that they were both planning to visit Vietnam, they read the same books about the country.

The Capens even flew to Bulgaria to attend Raytcheva's wedding. Before the nuptials, Raytcheva and her fiancé took Capen and his wife, who live in Minnesota, on a five-day trip through the Bulgarian countryside.

''There was no way I could have come to Princeton without the scholarship,'' said Raytcheva, a member of the class of 1994. ''Getting to study at Princeton, that alone was a tremendous opportunity. But developing such a close relationship with the person who provided it for me meant a lot more.''

This year more than 2,300 undergraduates will receive need-based scholarships from funds established by alumni and friends of the University. In many instances, a bond develops between the scholarship donor and the student that flowers into a lasting friendship.

''It is an intergenerational connection that enables donors and scholarship recipients to enjoy Princeton together,'' said Kirk Unruh, recording secretary and director of development relations. ''And it's inspiring for the students to know that there are people who, without knowing them, cared enough to establish a scholarship fund that made it possible for them to become undergraduates at Princeton.''

The students are encouraged to write to their scholarship donors, and the overwhelming majority do. Donors often write back, sparking a connection that can lead student and donor to meet at Princeton or elsewhere. These bonds are especially strong when the students are from outside the United States, because the scholarship donors often become surrogate families.

''It's great to have an ongoing connection to Princeton, and to see it through the eyes of a current student,'' said Capen, who established the Gary Capen Family Scholarship for International Women in 1986. ''And it's been a terrific cultural education for my family.''

Raytcheva, who now lives in Manhattan and works for Citigroup, has fond memories of the Thanksgiving breaks she spent at Capen's house and the friendships she formed with his three daughters. ''It was my first introduction to what American family life is like, and it gave me an idea when I have a family what I want it to be like,'' she said. ''What helped was they were very curious about where I came from and wanted to know about my background. Whenever I have reached a certain milestone in my life -- getting my first job, falling in love, getting married -- I've always shared it with them.''

Champion, confidante, career counselor

For Ajla Merdanovic, a member of the class of 2001 who is from Sarajevo, Mike Mahoney has been her champion, confidante and career counselor.

Mahoney, a member of the class of 1951, has funded nine scholarships, the most that any individual has endowed. Merdanovic was the recipient of the Azra Buljubasic Memorial Scholarship, which he endowed after reading about a 12-year-old girl who was killed by mortar fire in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

''Mike has given me selfless support and encouragement,'' she said in an e-mail from Zagreb, Croatia, where she is an intern with the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. ''He has become so much more than a sponsor; he is a part of my family.''

The two began corresponding during Merdanovic's sophomore year, after which she traveled to California to visit him. At stressful times in her life, Merdanovic would call Mahoney and get reassurance and support ''no matter what day, what time, what problem it was,'' she recalled. They also debated current events, discussed her college experiences and explored her career goals. When Merdanovic became ill during her senior year, ''Mike was the family I did not have in the U.S. He and I were in touch from the hospital almost daily.''

''It's been a wonderful experience, getting to know her,'' said Mahoney. ''She's an exceptional young lady.''

Since graduating from Princeton, Merdanovic has returned to Bosnia to work on humanitarian causes. She credits Mahoney for supporting her decision when others discouraged her.

''He always said: 'Your country needs people like you. Your family needs you. Go home, follow your dreams.' So I did,'' said Merdanovic, who is enrolled in a master's degree program in human rights in Sarajevo.

Scholarship recipients often find inspiration from the stories behind the bequests. (For more on scholarships established through bequests, see ''By the numbers'' on page 2). Ryan Coyle, a member of the class of 2006 from Massachusetts, was the recipient of the Morgan McKinzie Class of 1993 Scholarship, which honors a star volleyball player and engineering student who was killed in a plane crash before his senior year. Coyle learned about Morgan's accomplishments in a letter he received from Rena McKinzie, Morgan's mother, who lives in California. She writes to all the scholarship recipients to introduce herself and tell them about her son.

''I often think of Morgan and the other great young men and women who attended Princeton,'' Coyle wrote in a letter to McKinzie's parents. ''I feel, in times of difficulty, a great sense that I belong to something special, and I owe it to myself and the exalted company I now belong to to find my way and do something special . . . . Your support means more than you know.''

Rena McKinzie said she has received wonderful letters from the scholarship recipients, who have shared details of their lives, their aspirations for the future and their thanks.

''We love to keep up and know what the students are doing,'' she said. ''Sometimes it's several years later and we'll hear from them again. They're very dear in sharing their lives with us.''

Sophomore Eva Vertes attended the lunch for the class of 1968 at last February's Alumni Day at the invitation of Philip Webster, who established the scholarship she was awarded. The L. Stuart Webster Scholarship, which honors the memory of Webster's father, is given annually to undergraduates from Canada.

Webster also told Vertes, who is from Hamilton, Ontario, that she couldn't possibly miss Reunions. The two met up on that occasion as well, and Vertes found the event inspiring.

''I knew that Princeton was a wonderful place, but it was amazing to see everyone connected by the Princeton bond and coming back year after year,'' Vertes said. ''Mr. Webster introduced me to this, and I am so grateful. It is nice to know that someone is following what I am doing, encouraging and supporting me.''

The two met at the beginning of Vertes' freshman year, and they keep in touch regularly by e-mail, talking about Vertes' experiences at college and her plans for the future, as well as current events and science.

''It has been really fun getting to know her and sharing in her enthusiasm for her courses and her whole Princeton experience,'' said Webster, who lives in Montreal. ''Having had a son graduate in 1994, it is almost like having a second child at Princeton 10 years later.''