John Schenken ’98 recalls his family gatherings fondly, reminiscing on holidays when crowds of his extended relatives and close friends converged at his grandparents’ house. Thanksgiving meant John would help his grandmother prepare two turkeys just to feed the masses.
“Growing up, all four of my grandparents greatly impacted my life,” John said. “My grandmother, particularly, really reinforced in me the values of kindness, generosity and providing for others, as she was always a great host for any holiday or event. That generosity extended beyond John’s younger years: While in college, although basic tuition and housing were covered through loans, grants and his employment at H-E-B, John’s grandparents were kind enough to also supplement his income with $200 per month.
John’s grandfather also had a history of supporting education. In addition to having taught at The University of Texas at Austin, he funded a general scholarship not tied to any specific college. The impact of those scholarships was not really known to John or his family until about five years ago, when John’s mom met one of his scholarship recipients coincidentally.
While visiting a family member in the hospital, John’s mom befriended one of the nurses and learned that she couldn’t have afforded nursing school without a scholarship she received. The nurse and John’s mom were both surprised when they realized the scholarship had, in fact, come from John’s grandfather.
In 2018, John and his wife Valarie decided to create a scholarship of their own for students at Texas A&M University. John was inspired by his family’s own record of generosity, while Valarie, as the first in her family to graduate from college, felt called to help other students pursue higher education. With his grandmother’s 99th birthday coming up, they chose to name the award after her to honor the impact she and the rest of his grandparents had on his life.
A CHANGE OF PLANS
Born in San Antonio, John was the middle of three children. In deciding where to attend college, finances played a major role. At Texas A&M, he found an affordable university that complimented his beliefs and interests. “The fact that my best friend was headed to Texas A&M was a big factor in my decision as well—we got into plenty of trouble together,” he laughed.
In 1991, John began his freshman year in College Station, where he spent his first two years studying to enter the medical field before changing to computer science. “At first, I was sure that I wanted to become a doctor, but I later realized my passion was in computers,” he said.
During his sophomore year, he was encouraged to apply for an internship at Microsoft. “I assumed I had zero chance of being accepted,” he said. To his surprise, he was offered the internship and spent two consecutive summers as a student worker at Microsoft.
“In my second year there, everything just clicked,” he said. “I had a phenomenal summer, and at the end of my internship, the team’s manager offered me a job. However, I decided to finish school before accepting the position here.
“When I returned to Microsoft the following summer, the work, personal relationships and environment all continued to fit for me,” John said. “There are varying challenges every day and always new puzzles to work out. It keeps me active and engaged—which is fun for me.”
During his nearly 20-year career at Microsoft he has been in multiple roles, both as a manager and an individual contributor. “Today, I work on a team within Bing search,” he said. “We are working to provide a platform so that others who are looking to provide data or a service can quickly benefit from all the learning we have gained from Bing since its inception.”
CREATING A SCHOLARSHIP
When John and Valarie decided to create a scholarship at Texas A&M, Microsoft’s benefits were an unexpected bonus. Using matching funds, they doubled their contribution. “Microsoft matching funds allowed us to fund the scholarship more quickly while still maintaining a very comfortable personal contribution schedule,” he said. “Before, I thought funding a scholarship was an extremely high-dollar requirement and not something within financial reach.”
Through their gift, the Sidney Helen Holmgreen Endowed Opportunity Award (EOA) was created. EOAs afford deserving students with an annual stipend during their four years at Texas A&M. In addition, the endowment provides for the long-term growth of the principal, allowing a single gift to provide for students for years to come, something that the couple was especially excited about.
“We hope that the award helps its recipients like my grandparents helped me,” John said. “I would hope that the extra bit of financial support would allow them to more deeply engage in all that Texas A&M has to offer, with a little less concern about finances.”
Recipients of EOAs are selected based on their character, academic record, involvement, leadership ability, and SAT or ACT scores. When creating the scholarship, John wanted it to be available to students from any major. “In thinking of my own experience at Texas A&M, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started,” he said. “I like that the scholarship is open to everyone.”
On his grandmother’s 99th birthday, John gifted her the EOA plaque that he received in honor of his contribution. “She was totally surprised and completely thrilled,” he said. “Having her name engraved on it and being able to hang it in her apartment meant so much to her.”
Over the long term, John does plan to establish more EOAs, but for now he’s glad he could honor his grandmother before she passed away in late September. “I wanted to do something for my grandma that I could tell her about and let it speak to how much she meant to me,” he added.
To learn more about creating an Endowed Opportunity Award, contact Marcy Ullmann '86 below.