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There’s nothing simple about giving away $2 million. Retired tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Harvey Najim told a gathering of education and community leaders that making a $10,000 degree at a local college or university a reality for 200 students from San Antonio’s inner city schools took months of meetings, planning and partnerships.
“I might be crazy,” Najim said, looking back on his efforts to launch what is now officially known as the Harvey Najim Pathways Scholarship. That was the only thing the chairman of the Harvey Najim Family Foundation said Thursday morning that the audience wasn’t buying. Thursday’s press conference was all about celebrating the reality of Najim’s vision coming to fruition. The $2 million gift will allow 200 inner city public school students who lack the funds to attend college. The money is a personal gift from Najim and his wife Nancy, who also was in attendance, and not a foundation disbursement.
“The end goal here is to create citizen leaders for our community, this is not just about graduating from college,” said Dr. Bruce Leslie, the Alamo Colleges chancellor, as he thanked the Najims. “There is a lot of talk nationally about a free college education. A lot of that is politics and rhetoric without anyone saying how it is going to happen. Well, this is how it is going to happen.”
Najim’s gift includes $1 million to the Alamo Colleges Foundation that will provide $2,500 annual scholarships to 50 incoming students for each of the next four years. The other $1 million will got to the three public universities: University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M-San Antonio University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center for the same level of scholarship support once the students graduate with two-year degrees from the Alamo Colleges and enroll in undergraduate degree programs in computer science, information technology, cybersecurity, nursing or health sciences at one of the three local universities.
Najim said he originally intended to limit the scholarships to STEM students, but then learned that graduates of the Health Science Center’s School of Nursing receive an average of five job offers, a reflection of the acute shortage of nurses in the workforce.
Leaders from the three institutions were on hand for the press conference, including Texas A&M University President Cynthia Teniente-Matson; Wm. Gerard “Gerry” Sanders, dean and Bodenstedt chair of UTSA’s College of Business; and Dr. Jacqueline Mok, UTHSCSA’s vice president of academic affairs.
The three universities will match Najim’s $2,500 annual scholarships. Students will pay for the balance of their college costs with student loans, although Najim said he hopes other philanthropists step forward and help close that funding gap. Each student will be eligible for summer internships at local companies after their sophomore and juniors years, a program that will be funded by Bexar County. Each student must agree to remain in the San Antonio workforce one year for each year of scholarship assistance.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Najim “is one of those rare individuals who gets personally involved in every venture in education that he helps fund. We don’t see that very often in the business community.”
Eligible students can start applying as soon as Monday, Feb. 22. Students must have a 3.0 GPA or higher and be enrolled in dual credit or advanced placement math, accounting, science and computer technology courses. All high schools in in Edgewood, Harlandale, Somerset, South San, Southside, Southwest and San Antonio independent school districts are eligible.
“Too many jobs in technology and the medical field are not being filled with local San Antonio graduates – especially those from low-income families,” Najim said. He went on to tell the story of an office elevator encounter in the Spectrum Building before he retired as the founder and chairman of Sirius IT Solutions inside Loop 410. He met a human resources manager for the California software company in the elevator one day who told Najim that only 10% of the office’s 200 workers were found locally. The majority had to be recruited from outside the city.
Najim also told the stories of his personal encounters with two inner city students. Alejandro Gonzalez, a homeless teen living with his family at Haven for Hope, and Reanna Martinez, the daughter of a man who washes his car. Both benefitted from Najim’s mentoring and financial support. Gonzalez will graduate this year from Baylor University with a computer science degree and go to work for Hewlett-Packard at a starting salary of $65,000. Martinez will attend Texas Lutheran University on a full ride.
That experience convinced Najim he had to do more than help individual students that he happened to encounter randomly. Najim said he did not know Leslie or much about the Alamo Colleges until a mutual fiend shared one of the chancellor’s weekly video blogs. That was the connection that eventually led to the new scholarship program unveiled Thursday.
Students from the first scholarship class will finish their two-year degrees at one of the Alamo Colleges in May 2018, and complete their four-year degrees in May 2020. By 2024 all 200 students will be in the local workforce, contributing what Najim estimated will be $10-12 million annually in economic activity.
Najim said he thought about contacting former Gov. Rick Perry, an advocate of the $10,000 college degree, to inform him it was becoming a reality in San Antonio. Turning to Sen. José Menéndez, Najim said, “I suppose if I had his email, I’d tell him we are doing it.”
“Don’t look at me,” Menéndez shot back, drawing laughter as he joined Najim at the podium.
“What you are doing today with this gift is helping develop the leadership and workforce to change this city’s paradigm as a low wage economy,” Menéndez said. His praise for Najim prompted the philanthropist to plant an impromptu kiss on Menéndez’s cheek, leaving the state senator momentarily speechless and the crowd applauding.
*Top Image: Local philanthropist Harvey Najim greets Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie before the presentation of the Alamo Colleges’ Harvey Najim Pathways Scholarship. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.