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Presidential Scholarship program builds lifelong connections

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Helen Nordquist, left, poses with her mom, Karen. Both women have been named Presidential Scholars by the University of New Mexico Foundation. Helen is a current scholar; Karen graduated in 1986. (Courtesy of Karen Nordquist)

Helen Nordquist, left, poses with her mom, Karen. Both women have been named Presidential Scholars by the University of New Mexico Foundation. Helen is a current scholar; Karen graduated in 1986. (Courtesy of Karen Nordquist)

Before she graduated from the University of New Mexico with the class of ’86, Karen Nordquist was a Presidential Scholar. Today, she and her husband, Doug, sponsor a Presidential Scholar. And their daughter, Helen, is a Presidential Scholar.

“You go through the scholarship program and it’s so great you think, ‘I should give back to this,'” Karen Nordquist said.

The scholarships, currently given to 450 students, are awarded to New Mexico residents who scored 25 on the ACT or 1,140 on the SAT. Students also must have maintained a 3.75 grade point average in high school and complete 15 new credit hours with a 3.0 GPA at UNM.

A key part of the Presidential Scholarship program is the connection between a sponsor and the scholar.

TUZEL: Returning to UNM as a med student (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

TUZEL: Returning to UNM as a med student (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Sara Tuzel, 22, a scholar who will graduate with honors this week, said perhaps the most important aspect of the program for her was the deep friendship she formed with her sponsor, Polly Primm, an anesthesiologist with Presbyterian Hospital who represents Anesthesia Associates of New Mexico.

She could not say enough about Primm, with whom she would get together at least once a semester to catch up. “She’s just wonderful,” said Tuzel, who is getting a degree in health, medicine and human values. Unlike the majority of the 1,000 graduates, Tuzel completed her bachelor’s degree in four years. She calls herself, “very lucky, very grateful.”

Back in high school, Tuzel was accepted for the scholarship through a UNM program called BAMD – Bachelor of Arts/Medical Doctor. On July 15, she will return to the UNM campus, this time as a medical student.

The scholarship “really meant so much more to me than just a scholarship,” she said in an email. “It has given me a community to encourage me, a mentor to look up to and to keep in contact with, and wonderful friendships.

Karen Nordquist recalled that when she and her husband were younger, they couldn’t afford the full cost of sponsoring a scholar, which today is about $2,600 a year. So they would write a check for $100, which they knew was appreciated. Nonetheless, they were delighted to be able to take on a full sponsorship role a few years ago.

Some employers offer matching contributions, she said, which makes a sponsorship more affordable. The scholarships are administered and awarded by the UNM Foundation. They are renewable for up to four years, with part of the tuition award paid by the state’s lottery scholarship fund.

Nordquist, in a recent interview, recalled being told in the 1980s that she and her group of scholars were the best and the brightest. “It was drilled into us,” said Nordquist, who was the keynote speaker recently at the scholarship’s 38th annual dinner and celebration. “They had high expectations of us.”

Over the years, the program has evolved. From her vantage point of recipient and sponsor, Nordquist sees more interaction today between scholars and their sponsors than when she was a scholar.

But, despite the passage of nearly three decades and the relatively minimal interaction she shared with her sponsors, she remembers them well: First, there was Dr. Effie Medford, a well known Albuquerque physician. Medford was followed by Robert Moore of the Moore Organization, a commercial real estate firm.

“These were people active in the community – leaders in the community,” Nordquist said. “I had read about them in the paper. It was a neat experience.”

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