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Sitting among his high school classmates during an assembly at Central Catholic High School in Reading, then-high school freshman Timothy McNichol '99 listened intently to the white-haired, grandfatherly gentleman with the big smile. Polished and dressed in a suit, the cheerful, bright-eyed man had a relaxed way about him as he spoke passionately about leadership and the importance of being involved in the community. He charged each student with working to make a difference.
McNichol was in awe, impressed by the man known to many in Berks County as a legend.
That man was Eugene Shirk.
Former two-term Reading mayor, president of Berks Community Television, and Albright math professor and track and cross-country coach, Shirk was a beloved mentor, humanitarian and tireless Berks County leader. Sadly, on Feb. 17, 1994, Shirk was killed in a car accident at the age of 92.
His legacy, however, has lived on through the Eugene L. Shirk Scholarship, established by Albright College in spring 1995 to attract outstanding students from Berks County to Albright.
The inaugural class of Shirk Scholars entered Albright in fall 1995. Timothy McNichol was one of them.
The Shirk Scholarship is Born
Back in the early 1990s, when McNichol was a high school student, Albright did not have a presence in Berks County high schools, said William Stahler, who served as vice president for enrollment at Albright from 1992 to 1996. Soon after Stahler joined the Albright Admission team (he now serves as assistant dean in the college of visual and performing arts at Kutztown University), he began sending admission counselors to visit local high schools. Up until then, he said, the strategy was to recruit in surrounding states.
Greg Eichhorn, current vice president of enrollment management and dean of admission, who served as an assistant director under Stahler, said that traditional Berks County enrollment accounted for less than 10 percent of the student body in the early '90s. At the time, Stahler was mulling over a plan to offer sizable scholarships to outstanding local students as a way to recruit them to Albright. After Gene Shirk died, Stahler said, finding a way to tie the beloved Berks Countian into Albright and make an impact locally felt like the right thing to do.
The Eugene L. Shirk Scholarship was established to target Berks County students who are focused on academics as well as community service; students who are involved in school activities and have proven leadership ability and aboveaverage communication skills. "We looked for students who were leaders in their high schools who could be leaders at Albright," Stahler said.
McNichol remembers the call he received to congratulate him on being one of the first recipients of the scholarship. "It was like it all came full circle," he said.
"To be told that I was getting a scholarship named after Gene Shirk and to know what his life meant to the community, that was an honor," said McNichol. To date, 225 Shirk Scholars have graduated, leaving their mark on the Albright campus and in the community.
Serving the Berks County Community
Shirk Scholar Emilee Hart '13 has been committed to serving her community since high school. "I grew up here. I want to help make this a better place," Hart said. Shirk felt the same way. Throughout his life he was integrally involved with his church and more than 25 civic groups, including the Commission for Downtown Renewal, Reading Phillies, Kiwanis Club, American Cancer Society, Rotary Club, YMCA, M.A.D.D. and the White House Conference on Aging.
An ode to Shirk's legacy, the scholarship not only requires students to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, it also mandates that they perform at least 25 hours of community service per semester. Working with organizations such as Opportunity House, Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Society and the Greater Reading Food Bank, among others, Shirk Scholars logged more than 1,800 volunteer hours during the fall 2011 semester alone.
Hart spends much of her volunteer time at an assisted living home. "My grandmother was there until she passed away my freshman year at Albright, but I have continued to visit and spend time with the residents. It is impossible not to be touched and changed by the wonderful people there. Listening to their stories and learning from them has prepared me for the 'real world' in ways that cannot be taught in a classroom," she said.
When McNichol came to Albright as a Shirk Scholar in 1995, finding volunteer opportunities was left up to the individual student. A political science major who is now deputy executive director of the American College of Osteopathic Internists in Washington, D.C., McNichol founded the College's Volunteer Center. Set up as a conduit between students and the greater Berks County community, the Volunteer Center helps students find long- and short-term volunteer projects that match their interests and availability.
Shirk Scholar Jennifer (Moll) Lau '99 was also inspired by the volunteer component of the Shirk Scholarship. As a sophomore, Lau reorganized Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity that was defunct for a number of years in the early '90s.
Lau, a licensed clinical social worker for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., said helping people has always been in her blood. "I've always looked for an opportunity to help those at a disadvantage," she said. Along with the Volunteer Center, Alpha Phi Omega gave Lau, fellow Shirk Scholars and others interested in community service a way to connect to the Berks County community.
Shirk Alumni Pay it Forward
Even as alumni, many Shirk Scholars continue to volunteer their time by conducting interviews as part of the Shirk Scholarship application process. Unlike admission interviews, which are conducted by admission counselors, Shirk interviews—staying true to the core of the scholarship—are done by Albright administrators, faculty, staff, and current and past Shirk Scholars on a voluntary basis.
Jordan Mauger '06, senior copywriter with Vox Medica Inc. in Philadelphia, has come back to Albright several times to participate in the Shirk interviews. "It's almost like seeing myself through a time warp—the nervous but excited soon-to-be freshman who so desperately wants to have all the right responses. But what I found is that being selected as a Shirk Scholar isn't about having all the answers. It's about embodying Eugene Shirk," Mauger said. "The best candidates are those who seem to genuinely enjoy helping others, whose faces light up when they're talking about their service experience. These are Shirk Scholars."
Brian Schwab, DMD '02 agreed. "Having been involved in the scholarship process now for 10 years, I am always so amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of the prospective scholars," he said. "To hear their passions and visions for themselves and the world around them is truly inspiring."
Enrollment of Local Students Grows
Many of the students who apply for the Shirk Scholarship but are not offered it still enroll at Albright, said Jennifer Williamson, associate director of admission and coordinator of the Shirk program. "That's attributable to a number of things," she said, "particularly the way we make them feel a part of the community and embrace them during the interview process."
Today, Berks County is represented in more than 15 percent of Albright's student body, said Eichhorn. "The College's enrollment growth has been led by local improvements in recruitment efforts centered around the Shirk Scholarship program," he said. "Each year, our success in reaching our enrollment targets can be forecasted by how we do locally. If we don't do well in Berks County, we don't achieve our goals."
Because of its proximity to her home, Lau wasn't initially considering Albright when she was a high school student looking at colleges. But "the Shirk Scholarship makes you take a second look at Albright, and you see how great it is," she said.
Had it not been for the Shirk Scholarship, McNichol would not have come to Albright, either. "Not knowing what I didn't know, I would have gone to Penn State," he said. He's grateful for Gene Shirk and the scholarship that steered him to Albright.
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