Taking Inspiration

By Grace Merritt

Russ St. John

Russ St. John hiking in Nepal

During a recent visit back to UConn's School of Engineering, Russ St. John '80 (ENG), '85 (MBA) met several remarkable students he supported with a scholarship donation.

One in particular stood out.

"I remember a young lady who said she wanted to help provide clean water in Latin America. She was talking about taking her education and using it to help lots of people. It was inspiring," he says.

Russ was so impressed that he decided to give a permanent scholarship to the School of Engineering as part of his legacy. With help from the University of Connecticut Foundation, he started the scholarship and arranged to leave a gift in his will to grow it.

"What better a way to leave a legacy?" he says. "It really attached to my heart right away. I decided this is what I want to do."

Elaine and Russ St. John

Elaine and Russ St. John

Russ, who was raised in Southington, Connecticut, was the first in his family to go to college. He didn't receive a scholarship and paid his way through school, balancing his heavy academic load with weekday jobs in a University lab and weekend shifts at a local Howard Johnson's restaurant. His scholarship will pave a smoother path for other promising engineering students in perpetuity.

When he first decided to leave a gift to the University in his estate, he wasn't sure how to do it. He said the UConn Foundation staff was helpful in outlining his options and explaining the tax benefits of planned gifts, such as IRAs.

Russ double-majored in mechanical engineering and material science, and immediately got a job designing jet engines at GE, where he worked for 21 years. He was then recruited for a job in Minneapolis for Katun, a technology provider for the printing industry. Later, he joined Entrust Datacard as chief marketing officer.

Now, in their free time, he and his wife, Elaine, volunteer at a local alternative high school, helping students earn their GEDs. Russ also makes time for travel. In April, he enjoyed a two-week trek in Nepal, hiking up to 15,300 feet in the Himalayas.

Wherever he has gone, Russ says his UConn education has been a great passport to success.

Renewed Hope

Rita Matta

Scholarship recipient: Rita Matta '16 (ENG)

Rita Matta '16 was raised by a single mom who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer when Rita was in middle school. Her family struggled to pay the medical bills and other expenses, while the emotional stress took its own toll.

But as Rita finished high school, she had hope. She hoped that she could get into UConn, hoped that she could earn or borrow the money it cost, and hoped that she could succeed. In 2012 she was accepted into the UConn School of Engineering and juggled baby-sitting and tutoring jobs between her studies.

At the same time, UConn alum Russ St. John '80, '85—so grateful for what UConn had done for him—established a scholarship to help students in need.

Rita, about to begin her senior year, was chosen and life turned a corner. "I remember calling my mom and crying for hours," she says. "It was a huge relief to me."

Rita, now 22, is a doctoral student at Yale, helping to develop a minimally invasive treatment for stroke patients.

Today, Rita's mother is in remission, and Rita has a new hope: to one day pay it forward and relieve the burden of other students hoping to pursue further education. Meanwhile, she is helping in another way—volunteering for an outreach program that encourages middle-school-age girls in the New Haven area to enter STEM careers.