In 2009, not long after Jessica Schuck was named a Texas Exes Scholar, she received a piece of mail she’ll never forget.
It was a card from Sally Mandell, her scholarship donor. Signed by 30 of Sally’s family members, the card said simply, “Welcome to the family.” Tucked inside was a photo of the entire clan doing the Hook ’em sign.
“I can’t describe how I felt when I opened that card,” says Jessica. “I knew I was in for something special.”
Ever since, Jessica and Sally have grown closer.
The two first met at a scholarship dinner that fall. While other scholar-donor pairs struggled to make conversation, Jessica and Sally hit it off right away, chatting about everything, Jessica says. The age difference—Jessica is 21; Sally is in her seventies—was no barrier.
After the dinner, Sally invited Jessica to go with her to an art show, which they enjoyed so much that they made plans to attend a baseball game with Sally’s husband, Hum, and Jessica’s boyfriend. Next came shopping trips and a night at the symphony. And last year, Jessica invited Sally to meet her family at a tailgate before the Texas vs. Rice game in Houston. “They were the nicest people,” Sally remembers. “We had a blast.” Now everyone exchanges Christmas cards.
Jessica was nervous to tell Sally when she switched majors from nursing to speech pathology. “I feel a responsibility to her,” Jessica explains. “She’s investing in me, counting on me to achieve a lot.” In fact, Sally was thrilled to hear of Jessica’s new career interest. She took her to visit the office of her daughter, a doctor. Jessica made a valuable new contact in the medical field.
Jessica says that the friendship has given her the confidence to try new things. Peers are often surprised to learn that the blonde, stylish sorority girl is president of the Texas Outdoorsmen club, planning camping and canoeing trips. “That was something outside my comfort zone, something I might not have tried otherwise,” Jessica says. “Sally helped me realize that I shouldn’t worry what people might think of me. If I do my best, that’s what matters.”
The scholarship is the result of three generations of a Longhorn family dedicated to education and philanthropy. Sally’s mother, Mary Joy Odam Cowper, started the fund in honor of her father, George Allan Odam, a professor and education dean at the University of North Texas.
Jessica says she’s been inspired by reading a commencement speech Odam gave at UNT in 1945. Sally even gave her an original copy of the speech. “I can’t wait for the day when I have my own speech pathology practice, and Dr. Odam’s speech is hanging on the wall,” Jessica says.
Unusual though their bond may be—few donors and recipients get so close—it’s always come naturally to the two women. When asked in separate interviews why they so enjoy spending time together, Sally and Jessica both give an identical answer: “She’s just fun to be around.”
Jessica calls Sally her fairy godmother; for her part, Sally says Jessica keeps her young.
“There’s no limit to what she wants to share with me,” Jessica says. “She’ll be there on my wedding day.”
From left: Hum and Sally Mandell with Jessica Schuck at a 2010 Texas Exes scholarship dinner.
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Mitzi Irene Nuhn Dreher:
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