Alumni Lead the Way on First Endowed Scholarship for Religious Studies

Religious Studies is one of the newest departments on Georgia State’s campus — it’s only existed as a separate department for eight years and only had its own alumni advisory board for three. Yet those alums have wasted little time in creating the department’s first endowed scholarship.

“These are people who provide some general advisement and financial support for the department, and they also want to help support students who are in the program,” says Department Chair Kathryn McClymond. “So they decided to establish an undergraduate scholarship. Each member contributed a certain amount of money, and that base has also made it possible for me to go out to other alumni and say, ‘This core group of alumni has already given — would you be willing to give as well?’”

McClymond describes the creation of the endowment as a true team effort. She credits alumni Derek Jackson, Lori Feig-Sandoval and Heather Abraham as being particularly strong leaders in the creation of both the alumni board and the scholarship endowment, while Grene Baranco organized a major public event to promote awareness of the department, and David Dreyer is helping to shape public conversations about religion in state of Georgia legislative affairs..

Jackson says his multiple donations to the endowment fund are a way of showing gratitude to a program that’s made him a more worldly individual. “The Religious Studies program at Georgia State helped me develop a better appreciation for the vast diversity that exists in our world today, which is something I believe is crucial as more people and their cultures comingle,” he says. “So I chose to contribute to the undergraduate scholarship because it will not only help a worthy student pursue a degree in Religious Studies, but it will also help promote the general well-being of the department, which I believe is a very good thing for us all.”

As an executive for a metal casting and equipment company in the Atlanta area, Jackson doesn’t fit the stereotypical profile of a Religious Studies graduate. Neither does Dreyer, who last year made partner at the Chamberlain Hrdlicka law firm. But McClymond notes that Religious Studies prepares students for a wide range of professions, and Dreyer confirms that what he learned at Georgia State has paid off in unexpected ways over the course of his legal career.

“It was just a good foundation for going into law — the reading, writing and critical thinking,” he explains. “In Religious Studies we would need to read documents critically, formulate ideas on them and then write effectively, and that’s kind of the crux of being an attorney. As a lawyer, I write long briefs and also engage in oral arguments, and what I did in Religious Studies was a good foundation for that. I was perfectly prepared to go to law school and succeed there because of the experience I had at Georgia State.

“I received a couple scholarships when I was at Georgia State, so I think it’s very important to be able to give back. And I’m also keenly aware that Georgia State faces challenges that are much different from many other universities. I wanted to make things a little better for students, and I know from having touched base with [Vice President for Enrollment]Tim Renick that unmet financial need is the biggest hindrance to students’ academic success. Hopefully we can help some students at Georgia State achieve that success.”

McClymond hopes that many more Religious Studies alumni share Dreyer’s sentiment. For many of the alumni board members who donated, it was their first time making a gift of $1,000 or more to the university or being part of a peer-to-peer fundraising initiative. So in addition to “building some visibility” among people not yet familiar with the Religious Studies department, she hopes the endowment effort can serve to establish stronger bonds with those who are.

“This is not a closed endowment — the alumni can continue to make contributions to it. And it’s the kind of scholarship where the more people contribute, the better,” she says. “We really see this as a way for our alumni to express their support for the program.”