Out of Tragedy, Hope: The Nance Lu Mescon Scholarship

Michael Mescon is what you might call a man of few words. He rarely needs much time to get the point across of a story or anecdote; he can tell it in a few sentences and still make you feel like he’s said everything he needed to. Perhaps that’s one of the traits that’s made him such an effective teacher for more than 50 years.

And neither Michael nor his wife Enid — even when given the opportunity, and they’ve had plenty — spend any time or energy boasting of their own accomplishments. They’d rather save their pride and accolades for the people and things important to them. Their family, obviously, is one. And anyone who knows them can guess that Georgia State is another.

The story of the Nance Lu Mescon Scholarship is the story of those two great loves coming together — inspired by a family tragedy, but also by a deep and sincere belief that Georgia State students have the power to keep that kind of tragedy from happening to others.

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“I came in 1956 as an assistant professor in the business school,” Michael says. “An assistant professor making $5,600 a year. I thought I’d been handed the keys to Fort Knox.”

Michael quickly established himself as a tough professor but one genuinely devoted to his students’ success. “Class begins at 11 a.m.,” he declares, “and if you get in at 11:01, the door is locked. People sometimes wonder, ‘Why don’t you lower the bar a little for them?’ I don’t want to lower the bar for them, I want them to succeed, to compete successfully with anyone anywhere in the world. And students respond to that.”

Not long after becoming the dean of the business school in 1985, Michael made his mark on the school by hiring its first African-American professor. “I was looking for someone to teach policy, and I kept hearing the name Harding Young over and over again,” he remembers. “There was just one thing ‘wrong’: He was black. I said, ‘Harding, if you come here, you’ll change more stereotypes in five minutes than you will where you are in five years.’ He came to Georgia State and the walls came tumbling down.”

While all this was happening, Enid was earning a master’s degree and a certification in gerontology at Georgia State — an experience she says gave her added appreciation for the hard work put in by students. “We both loved Georgia State, but I really loved it as a student. That’s where I learned so much about the students who go to school all day, work half the night and get up and do it all again the next morning. Some of them wanted to keep their schoolbooks but couldn’t afford it because they had so many responsibilities to attend to at home. Seeing how hard those students worked, that’s where I fell in love with Georgia State.”

Their own children, too, began to think of Georgia State as home. “Our children grew up at Georgia State, running up and down the ramps at Kell Hall,” Enid says. Later, each of their three children would take classes at Georgia State at various points. Their oldest son, Tim, is now the president of Columbus State University; younger son Jed, who worked at the campus radio station, is a news anchor in Chattanooga.

Daughter Nance Lu, meanwhile, raised two children in South Carolina and returned to Atlanta after they left home. She was a paralegal for a number of local firms and enjoyed running and cycling in her spare time. Between her devotion to her family and her wide range of interests, her life seemed perfectly happy and normal; few people could’ve detected the pain and insecurity she’d carried with her for decades.

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“They used to say if you get hungry enough, you’ll eat,” Enid says. “But if you get hungry enough, you can also die.”

Nance Lu Mescon

Nance Lu Mescon

Looking back, they suspect Nance Lu began struggling with anorexia as a teenager. “Our family always tried to eat very healthy, and we’d talk about dieting from time to time,” Enid says. But their daughter’s concern over her weight and appearance, combined with all the usual stresses of being a teenager, conspired to make her take those considerations to the extreme. “And she never really got over it.”

Like many people battling anorexia, Nance Lu did a good job of hiding her inner turmoil and unhealthy eating habits. But those habits took their toll just the same. On July 29, 2011, Nance Lu passed away at the age of 54, leaving behind two grown children.

Eating disorders are a shockingly prevalent problem in the United States. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, as many as 24 million Americans currently may be suffering from one — and such disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. As they grieved for their daughter, the Mescons’ thoughts turned to how they could channel that grief into something positive. “These disorders just need more publicity,” Enid says. “I just read an article about how now even young boys are taking them on as well.”

When the Mescons decided to endow a scholarship in their daughter’s name, it was Nance’s son Ilya, a Ph.D. student at the University of Western Ontario, who suggested its purpose: funding the studies of students researching eating disorders from a policy or intervention perspective. Michael and Enid endowed the Nance Lu Mescon Scholarship at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies last spring, and the first two scholars were named just a week later.

“One of the first two Mescon Scholars did a wonderful bibliography on all the materials she could find on bulimia and anorexia, and she just graduated,” Enid says. “The other one got a scholarship to get her master’s degree in Tennessee. It’s so heartening to see these scholarships already paying off for students who might be able to make a difference.”

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Of course, Michael and Enid believed from the very beginning in Georgia State’s power to change lives that way. “It’s a remarkable university,” says Michael, who still teaches a popular leadership course at the Andrew Young School. “I got an e-mail this morning from one of my students, and it started off ‘Dear Dad.’ He’s from Malawi, and he put himself through Georgia State by delivering pizzas; he says he wants to go back to Malawi and run for office. It’s one of the poorest countries in Africa, but he says he’s going to change that.”

Witnessing stories of hard-working, dedicated Georgia State students only strengthened the Mescons’ resolve to ensure that their gift would directly benefit students and help lift them toward their goals. “We went to a meeting downtown where they talked about needing funds for scholarships for students who couldn’t afford it. That’s where we decided this scholarship would make a nice tribute,” Enid says. “They’ve got the drive and the dedication to make a difference, they just need a little help, and scholarships like these can provide that.”

Endowing the Nance Lu Mescon Scholarship has only strengthened the bonds between their family and the university. It’s more than just the pride of being a student or faculty member, or even a donor; Enid says it’s the emotional pull of watching knowledge change people’s lives.

“We attended one of the graduation ceremonies recently, and I sat next to a family who was there to watch one of their children graduate — that was the first person in their family to go to college, ever. They were crying, and before long I was crying, too! It was a beautiful moment. That’s the power that this school has. And that’s what Georgia State means to us.”