UI grad paying it forward with $1 million gift for scholarships

UI grad paying it forward with $1 million gift for scholarships

URBANA — In 1963, Robert Carr received a $250 scholarship for college from a local women's club in his hometown of Lockport.

Then a senior in high school at the time who came from a family of "modest means," he said the gift made a big impact on him — and not just because it helped make a dent in his University of Illinois tuition payments. He vowed back then that he would try to do the same for someone else when he was older and able.

Now, 53 years later, that $250 investment will soon translate into a $1 million gift back to his alma mater. Today, on Giving Tuesday, Carr plans to officially donate $1 million to the UI, enough money to cover the tuition, fees and room-and-board expenses for 50 future students. The gift will come from his foundation, Give Something Back, which he started in 2003 to put students from working-class and low-income families through college.

In its first year, the foundation gave five students full-ride scholarships to college. This year, Carr plans to foot 200 students' school bills, including the 50 who will attend the UI.

"The world has a lot of issues and many of them could be solved by having an equal opportunity for kids of all levels of wealth to have a chance to graduate from college without debt," he said. "We're doing our best to do our part to change the lives of as many students as we possibly can."

His foundation currently has a presence in five states and works in partnership with 17 universities. Carr and his team choose students for the scholarship by working with high school counselors to identify freshmen who may qualify.

They look at students' financial needs and evaluate their academic performance.

Freshmen chosen then have to take AP courses throughout high school and maintain a B average. Students are paired up with mentors from Give Something Back to help hold them accountable and teach them about applying to college. They're required to attend one of the 17 universities the foundation partners with, including five in Illinois.

Most of those chosen end up being first-generation college students and about 60 percent are minorities, Carr said.

Like Alberto Davila, a UI senior set to graduate in May with a degree in aerospace engineering. The first person in his family to go to college, Davila's tuition has been covered in full by Carr's foundation.

The gift has not only earned him a degree, but also influence.

"I want to not only graduate with my degree, but also set a standard so that my younger siblings may one day aspire to also go to college," Davila said. "Various coworkers from summer jobs and family members have told me that I have played some sort of role in them seriously considering or beginning their collegiate careers. I am proud of that."

Taylor Stortz, another Give Something Back recipient, is in her second year at the UI, where she is studying kinesiology. Money has always been tight in her large family. Her two older siblings also received scholarships from Carr to attend college, something none of them could have afforded to do on their own, she said.

"Coming from a family of six children, I know what it is like to have to count every dollar and be aware of all expenses," she said. "I am able to focus on school without having to worry if I will be able to pay my next bill for the education I am receiving. Having the privilege to receive this scholarship has been a blessing that I am grateful for every day."

The foundation is currently in the process of choosing the 50 freshmen who will receive Carr's $1 million gift in four years. Once those students graduate, Carr can officially say he has put 3,000 students through college.

The foundation is funded entirely by donations and Carr's own personal estate. Just this past year, he sold his Fortune 1000 company, Heartland Payment Systems, for $4.3 billion.

"That leaves quite a bit I'm able to contribute," he said. Despite his self-built success — he was the first of his family to attend college, earning a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in computer science from the UI and ran Parkland College's computer department before starting his own business — Carr still attributes his prosperity to that $250 scholarship the Lockport Women's Club gave him so many years ago.

In the early 2000s, he even repaid the organization with a $5,000 donation before launching his foundation. His hope for the students he helps is to make sure they understand the importance of paying it forward.

"I always tell our (recipients), 'You got a break, you can't say you didn't get a break,'" he said. "Then we always ask them, when they're done with college, to be a mentor or a donor. And our students really, really do that. They're great people who really appreciate the opportunity they receive."

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Reykjavik wrote on November 29, 2016 at 9:11 am

Impressive generosity.

It would be nice to see similar generosity from retired senior UIUC administrators and faculty big shots.  God knows that they can afford it and God knows that the UIUC students can use it now that the state is failing them.

cweiriit wrote on November 29, 2016 at 10:11 am

Let's not use one person's success and generosity to shame another person.  This single gift was $1 million out of a $4 billion estate, which is somewhat less generous than someone giving $1,000 out of a $4 million estate, which is less generous than someone giving $1 when they have just $4,000 to their name.  Why less?  Because the smaller your estate, the more of it you need just to survive.

What he's doing is awesome and a very noble use of his success.  But many people with far more modest means give gifts that are numerically smaller but much more painful to them.  Let's not shame them for giving what THEY can.