Low-income, first-generation and minority students at Western Kentucky University will have more opportunities and resources thanks to a gift from alumni George and CJ Nichols that was announced Wednesday.
The $1.3 million gift will aid programming within WKU’s Intercultural Student Engagement Center Academy, which supports first-year students of color, first-generation college students, Pell-eligible students and students who need additional help to graduate.
For CJ Nichols, who graduated from WKU in 1982 as a first-generation college student, the gift is a way to help similar students achieve their dreams.
“We’re from humble beginnings, had nothing, and yet (were) so blessed with family and friends,” Nichols said, adding she and her husband want to give back any way they can.
George Nichols, a 1983 WKU graduate, was appointed to WKU’s Board of Regents by Gov. Matt Bevin in 2017. He has also served on the WKU Board of Advisors since 2010, and he was a member of the WKU Foundation Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2011. He is senior vice president in the Office of Governmental Affairs for New York Life Insurance Company. He’s served as Kentucky commissioner of insurance and special advisor to Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton and also as executive director of the Kentucky Health Policy Board during the Patton administration, according to a news release.
George and CJ Nichols have three children and live near Washington, D.C.
The gift was announced during the university’s celebration of National Philanthropy Day, which was first recognized in 1986 by then-President Ronald Reagan.
During a ceremony at WKU’s Augenstein Alumni Center, the university’s advancement arm announced that it has changed its name to the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement. It was previously known as the Division of Development and Alumni Relations.
“We feel like it more clearly defines our mission to be donor centered,” said John Paul Blair, the division’s interim vice president, in an interview. Blair described the word “philanthropy” as a better way to convey what the division does and give it a clearer focus.
Meanwhile, Laura Turner Dugas was named the 2017 Philanthropist of the Year. Turner is the daughter of Cal Turner, who founded Dollar General in Scottsville. She’s served as the head of the Laura Goad Turner Foundation since its inception in 1989. The foundation has donated more than $2 million to WKU through four funds, a news release said.
Dugas and her late husband, Wayne Dugas, also partnered with WKU to develop Dugas Community Park in Scottsville.
“Their significant support provides students and faculty with opportunities for applied learning and creative academic experiences in a real-world environment,” WKU President Timothy Caboni said at the event.
Nichols spoke about her and her husband’s motivation for supporting the university. George Nichols was unable to attend the event but was on his way to visit the university.
The couple first met at WKU, and it’s been the foundation for some of their best memories, she said.
“Right over here on this hill, George gave me my first kiss,” Nichols said, referencing the area around Van Meter Hall.
However, Nichols said, it wasn’t a conventional first kiss. Inspired by an episode of “The Young and the Restless,” Nichols said she decided to smack him if he didn’t get permission first.
“So I slapped him, and I slapped him good,” Nichols said, getting some laughs from those in the room. Nichols said she led her husband on a chase down the hill and dramatically threw her books down before he caught her.
“He caught me and the rest is history,” she said.
Coming from Shelbyville, Nichols said her education at WKU taught her how to become an adult and build her own life.
“I credit Western Kentucky University and this entire community who wrapped their arms around us,” she said. “That’s a blessing in itself.”