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JP-based Endowment for Unexceptional Humans rewards average people's big dreams

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 3, 2012 05:55 PM

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the endowment for unexceptional humans.pngBy Katie Lannan

Amy Clark is unexceptional.

She is a writer, a college professor, and a tutor. She’s volunteered in Tanzania, and she’s started a scholarship foundation. But if it was up to a college admissions board, Clark said, she probably wouldn’t earn a traditional scholarship herself.

“I wasn’t an all-A student in high school,” she said. “If I’d had to rely exclusively on scholarships, I wouldn’t have made it. I would not have met those merit requirements.”

Clark sees the availability of merit scholarships as creating a disparity between students of varying incomes, where those with financial need have to succeed at a higher level to receive the help they need to pay for college. To help close this gap, Clark -- along with her husband Scott Thomson and friend Jeremy Bushnell -- founded The Endowment for Unexceptional Humans, a Jamaica Plain-based charity that provides grants and scholarships based on a unique set of criteria.

“We choose to focus on people’s plans for the future,” Clark said. “We’re sort of the anti-merit scholarship because there's a lot of merit scholarships out there for people who have already accomplished some sort of success.”

The Endowment for Unexceptional Humans gives out grants not to people who have already done great things -- acing a standardized test, for example, or winning an athletic championship -- but to those with well-developed ideas of great things they’d like to do, such as starting a small business or nonprofit. The idea for the Endowment grew from an experience Clark had while teaching at Chestnut Hill's Pine Manor College.

“There was one of my students who I just thought was great, but she wasn't an exceptional student -- she didn't have straight A’s,” Clark said. “She was a first-year student, and she came into my office one day and just started to cry because she realized she didn't have the money to pay for the rest of school.”

Clark said that the incident made her realize that a relatively simple effort on her part could make a profound difference in this girl’s life. She emailed her friends asking for contributions and was able to raise enough money to pay the balance of the girl’s tuition bill.

“I was just so appalled that $5,000, which was such a huge amount of money to this student but was a really small amount in the grand scheme of things, was going to keep her from finishing college,” Clark said.

That student was technically the first unofficial recipient of an Endowment for Unexceptional Humans scholarship, though the organization had yet to come together. Founding member Bushnell earned the Endowment’s first formal grant in 2009, receiving an old computer when his died as he was working to produce a board game.

Clark said that when considering scholarship applicants, the Endowment looks for people with a solid future plan that incorporates budgeting strategies and a support system.

“One of the things we like to do with folks who apply for scholarships is to go back and say, ‘We think you have a lot of potential, but what's your plan?’” she said.

Successfully funded unexceptional humans have gone on to earn an architecture license, establish a skate collective, and start an anti-violence organization, among other projects. In doing so, they’re redefining average as capable of making a difference, Clark said.

“In America, nobody wants to consider themselves ‘unexceptional,’” Clark said, “but we thought that our mission is to find what’s extraordinary inside regular people.”

The Endowment for Unexceptional Humans is hosting a fundraising storytelling auction at the First Church of Somerville on Friday, May 11, at 8 p.m. Nine local authors will read original works “about an item that is close to his or her heart” before each item is auctioned off, with proceeds benefiting the Endowment.

About Katie -- Currently a Brookline resident and BU senior, I grew up in New Hampshire, meaning I get confused when charged sales tax and can discuss at length the differences between multiple varieties of apples. At any given moment, I likely have my iPhone in my hand and at least one newspaper in my purse. I'm a political junkie, as well as an iced coffee addict. My interests include journalism, canvas sneakers, and pretending I'm in Ireland.

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