Many times, students never meet the people who provided them with scholarships, but at the 10th annual Plant a Seed Gala, benefactors got to know students of the NorthWest Arkansas Community College before deciding how much to donate to textbook fees, tuition costs and campus building construction and improvements.
Residents and community leaders met for dinner, live music and NWACC-centered presentations Thursday night at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers. The event doubled as a send off for the community college’s president, Becky Paneitz, who is to retire shortly and also honored three Quality of Life recipients: David Thrasher, Susan Chambers and the Northwest Arkansas Council.
The Plant a Seed Gala featured student waiters in place of normal catering staff. Guests of the event were encouraged to get to know their student waiter’s story, how they got to NWACC and where they’d like college education to take them. The informal atmosphere made chatting easy between the groups of people that rarely all sit down together for a meal-sponsors, professors and students.
During a presentation honoring President Becky Paneitz, guests had seven minutes to donate to Becky’s Book Club, an organization that provides book scholarships for students and removes a final obstacle for some non-traditional students who might otherwise be unable to attend college.
The seven minutes provided brief stories of three of those students:
• Kristie, a full-time nurse who has two children in college and didn’t know that scholarships were available to older students;
• Amanda, a 16-year-old who has earned 64 credit hours before graduating high school and hopes to have a Ph.D. before the age of 25; and
• Sherry, a single mother of three who went back to college to be a positive influence and inspiration to them.
At the end of the seven minutes of donating, event emcees Dr. Meredith Brunen and Wyley Elliott said they were close to meeting the $25,000 goal and announced that the NWACC Foundation had endowed Becky’s Book Club to cover cost of books long after Paneitz’s retirement.
“You may not think it’s much, but 60 percent of our students are on financial aid,” said NWACC President Becky Paneitz. “Every scholarship helps.”
Paneitzsaid she became a leader with the help of her family, who attended the Plant a Seed Gala to honor her.
“I never knew there were barriers to women out there because my Dad told me I could do whatever I wanted to do,” she said.
Over the past 10 years of service to NWACC, her connection to students remained a cornerstone of her work and one of the things that kept her motivated.
“If I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is ride the elevator with a student and ask them why they chose NWACC,” she said. “It’s not goodbye for me. NWA is my home. I’m excited to continue to support NWACC.”
Wes Mouser, a first generation college student, felt more at home on the NWACC campus because of Paneitz.
Mouser took a few tries to get through college because he wasn’t eligible for financial aid and wasn’t aware of any scholarships available to him, making it seem impossible to choose class over work. Once on the NWACC campus, he had teachers that both challenged him and made him feel like it was feasible.
“Teachers helped me feel like I belonged there,” Mouser said.
A stated mission of the NWACC is to make the quality of life better by providing affordable education for students from all walks of life. To that end, they take the time to honor others who are helping improve the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas. This year those people and organizations are David Thrasher, Susan Chambers and the Northwest Arkansas Council.
Thrasher has been Board Chair of the NWACC Foundation Board of Directors for eight years, during which he successfully completed a $16 million capital campaign, according to the Plant a Seed program.
“He walks the talk,” said Dick Trammel, a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission. “You can believe David does his part. He wouldn’t ask you to do something he didn’t want to do.”
Susan Chambers is an executive vice president at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and was honored by the Quality of Life award for her commitment to education and professional development.
“Susan just cares,” Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart Stores, said in a video honoring Chambers. “She cares about individuals and groups. She’s definitely raised the quality of life in northwest Arkansas.”
Chambers humbly accepted the award, stressing that the most important things are accomplished when people work together.
“(Northwest Arkansas is) a community of opportunity,” she said. Here, “you can be about anything you want to be.”