Imagine waking up at 3 am to log in and take a college class from a different time zone. That’s how Sandrae Band ’21, who is completing his military service in the Republic of Korea, earned his bachelor’s degree in political science.
Starting at Salem State University in 2014, Sandrae’s military obligations with the Massachusetts National Guard caused him to fall behind. In the end, Sandrae had only two classes left before he could receive his degree. A few years passed, and with COVID-19 causing universities to shift studies online, Sandrae saw his chance to finally take those remaining classes. However, he faced another hurdle: financial aid.
Sandrae had already exhausted his available Veterans’ Affairs assistance. Student Navigation Center Assistant Director Evelyn Almeida ’10G connected him with the Viking Completion Grant, a financial lifeline to get seniors to graduation, and he finished his degree.
“The completion grant arrived at the perfect time,” Sandrae shares. “I don’t know what I would have done without it. The funds were extremely helpful and I truly appreciate the support.”
Sandrae’s Viking Completion Grant was possible because of a historic $6 million gift to Salem State from alumna Kim Gassett-Schiller ’83, ’18H and her husband, Philip Schiller. This amount represents the largest cash gift made to one of the Commonwealth’s nine state universities.
Of the couple’s support, $5 million established the program that helped Sandrae graduate: the Viking Completion Grant Endowment. Wishing to assist undergraduate seniors in overcoming their final financial hurdle before graduation, the Schillers’ philanthropy provides a key resource to help students earn their degree. The Viking Completion Grants launched last academic year and will benefit up to 75 undergraduate students every year in perpetuity.
The $1 million balance from the couple’s gift fuels additional student resources at Salem State University that the couple have long supported, including the Center for Academic Excellence and the Harold E. and Marilyn J. Gassett Fitness and Recreation Center, as well as flexible dollars called unrestricted funds that can be deployed to address emerging university priorities focusing on student support and success.
“Philip and I are grateful that we are able to establish the Viking Completion Grants,” says Kim. “When we learned that some Salem State students, who achieve so much and are so close to graduating, risk dropping out for financial reasons, we had to step up. This gift will remove that risk and make earning a Salem State degree possible. We hope our gift will inspire others to support our students in any way.”
The first in her family to earn a college degree, Kim graduated from Salem State with a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1983 and made her first gift to her alma mater. It totaled one dollar. Since then, she has contributed consistently to numerous Salem State initiatives alongside her husband.
“No words could adequately describe our gratitude to Kim and Philip,” said President John Keenan, “and it furthers their decades of generosity toward Salem State. Kim and Philip have positively shaped the lives of thousands of students; their new gift will continue this impact for generations of learners to come. We are forever appreciative of and inspired by the Schillers’ philanthropy.”
Sandrae Band is just one of many students who have benefited from the Viking Completion Grant so far. Ishbel Donegan ’21, a social work major and first-generation college student, took full advantage of the opportunities at Salem State, including an internship with Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC) and a study abroad trip in Greece. The Viking Completion Grant gave her a critical boost leading to Commencement.
“I already had to take out so many loans for school and I didn’t get very much financial aid, so it was really helpful,” Ishbel shares. “It allowed me to graduate.”
Another senior, Nick Principi ’21, had just reached the final semester of his senior year when his father’s salary was cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing him to fall behind on his tuition payments. After completing the paperwork, he and his father were relieved to see a zero balance, enabling him to graduate on time.
“It was like magic,” Nick says. “I could feel my dad’s relief and happiness over the phone.”