Mary Kavonian can still remember four years ago when she learned that a total stranger, someone she had never heard of before, was willing to trust in her ability to thrive and excel at UCLA.
A graduating high school student, she felt failure was not an option.
“I thought, ‘It’s just crazy to see the faith she had in me,” said Kavonian of Thelma Culverson, the woman whose scholarship endowment would be paying her tuition, fees, room and board for the next four years. “It made me want to strive to do more and to do better because I knew someone was really giving their all to me — so I had to give my all.”
Today, having finished her coursework earlier this year, Kavonian has a newly minted B.S. degree in atmospheric, oceanic and environmental science, thanks to the Thelma L. Culverson Scholarship. She is the 13th student from University High School, Culverson’s alma mater, to go to UCLA on a full scholarship. Kavonian plans to participate in commencement ceremonies in June.
Endowing undergraduate student scholarships and graduate student fellowships is one of the goals of fundraising effort. Although Kavonian didn’t realize the profound impact Culverson would have on her life when she was selected for the scholarship — her parents cried, she recalled — Kavonian now sees what a major difference it has made in her education, choice of career, even her personal growth.
“Having this scholarship has meant everything to me,” said Kavonian. “It enabled me to take advantage of opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the time or resources to get involved with.”
Each year, only one new Culverson scholarship recipient is chosen from among the top University High School graduating seniors to go to UCLA and choose a major in the College of Letters and Science, a path that Culverson took before she graduated with a B.S. in 1960 and became a successful businesswoman.
Liberated from the need to work during the school year and summers, Kavonian committed herself to using that time wisely. Beginning in her freshman year, she sought out opportunities to do community outreach in many different ways and locations, ranging from downtown skid row, where she washed and helped treat the worn-out feet of homeless people, to the mountains, where she helped give L.A. foster children their first wilderness experience.
Working in summer camps for underprivileged and foster kids, playing with young patients at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and being a mentor to a 10-year-old girl in foster care, Kavonian began to move in a direction that is now leading her toward a career as an outdoor educator. She’s currently in an educator development program run by NatureBridge, which runs environmental science programs for children and teens at national parks across the country.
Her myriad volunteer activities, including summers working at Yosemite National Park, “were huge, life-changing experiences that I was able to have because, unlike my friends, I didn’t have to worry about taking out student loans and working to make that deadline for tuition. That huge pressure was gone.”
In its place, Kavonian found great joy in reaching out to kids, especially foster youths, and enriching their lives during the various outdoor camps and programs for which she’s volunteered.
“I struggled with issues in my own childhood,” she said. “But adult role models really made a difference in my life. I wanted to be that for these kids, offer them some hope and create fun memories for children who sometimes don’t get the kind of love and attention they need.”
Over the last four years, there were other opportunities that Kavonian couldn’t pass up.
Culverson gathers with her scholars twice a year at a Bruin basketball game and then again at the end of the academic year to celebrate the achievements of the graduating senior and welcome the new freshman scholar starting in the fall.
“She’s not someone who just gives the money,” said Kavonian of her benefactor. “She’s a genuinely nice person who asks me questions about school and is really interested in what I am doing. She’s really a wonderful, wonderful woman who encourages us all the time. I really admire her.”
In June, as the latest scholar to graduate, Kavonian will be the focus of the annual celebration hosted by Culverson.
“I will be writing a giant thank-you letter to her,” Kavonian said, smiling. “But this one won’t be the last. There will be plenty more in the future because she’s really changed my life.”