“This is why we do what we do!”
Trustee Jerry Holleran to President Tom Flynn

I remember the moment vividly. My first May Graduation at then Alvernia College in 2006. 

I am waiting just outside the Shander Room in the PEC to join the commencement procession with trustees and the rest of the stage party. And as I look down at hundreds of soon-to-be-alumni—undergraduates and graduate students of diverse ages and backgrounds—our distinguished trustee and generous donor, Jerry Holleran, captures in a brief phrase what should be the motto and inspiration for all who work and serve in higher education: “This is why we do what we do!” 

That moment and that simple, eloquent phrase have stayed with me. It is, or at least it should be, all about our students. I have cited the phrase in talks at subsequent graduations and when thanking our trustees, women and men who devotedly serve and guide Alvernia, volunteers who donate their time, talent, and financial resources. Most students, faculty, and staff are not aware that private, independent universities like Alvernia could not survive, let alone thrive, without the support of trustees, loyal alumni, and other friends.

So in this context, Jerry’s inspirational call to service took on new meaning for me last month when he and his wife, Carolyn, were honored with the national award for philanthropy by the Council of Independent Colleges at the largest annual gathering of the country’s college presidents. (To give perspective, Bill and Camille Cosby were earlier honorees.) Carolyn and Jerry have been generous donors and devoted trustee leaders at their alma maters, Carnegie Mellon University and Connecticut College. But in addition they have been extraordinarily generous to Alvernia, the school that has become for them a shared alma mater, a school they view as a place of opportunity for so many deserving students. 

In accepting their award, the Hollerans celebrated Alvernia—our Franciscan mission, our longstanding commitment to educate women and men of diverse backgrounds, our commitment to community engagement and service, our evolution from tiny college to respected university. But they used the occasion primarily to teach a lesson for us all: a lesson about the need to be generous in supporting those who seek higher education at schools like Alvernia.  

The Hollerans learned this lesson well when they themselves dreamed of a college education. Carolyn’s family had worked hard to afford tuition at a faraway liberal arts college, so she was stunned when at Freshman Convocation the president announced that her entire class was on scholarship. Had her parents not been able to pay the bill? Would she be able to stay the entire four years? The answer was unexpected. The cost of her education was actually far more than what she was paying. Only through the generosity of alumni and other donors was her college able to keep tuition more affordable for her family. And most of her classmates were also receiving financial aid from the college to make it possible for them to attend. It is a lesson she has never forgotten. 

Jerry was a promising student in math and science but he had no chance of affording Carnegie Tech (as it was called in those days). A generous employer paid for his education and made clear that he did not expect to be to be paid back. But there was a catch! Jerry had to promise that someday, when he made some money, he would help make it possible for other deserving and promising students to attend a fine, private college. This is why we do what we do.

May all of us—yes, especially, current students—remember that a college education is a great privilege, especially at a private school. Let us all be mindful, too, that tuition covers only a portion of the cost of a college education and that financial aid and generous support from people like Carolyn and Jerry Holleran make up the difference. And may each of us, in our own way, be challenged, as Jerry was, to be generous and visionary in helping promising women and men to become future Alvernia alumni.   

Flynn Files