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PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation Gala Celebrates Winners, Looks to Future

PanHellenic Scholarships
The PanHellenic Scholarship award ceremony in 2019. Credit: PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation

The PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation has provided over 500 scholarships to Greek-American students over the past 18 years after its founding in 2002 by Greek-American businessman and philanthropist Chris Tomaras.

This year, the awards gala will be presented — as they were last year — in a virtual gala which will feature entertainment and presentations highlighting the students’ hopes and dreams for the future.

The celebration is slated for Jun 19, 2021 at 7:30 PM Eastern Time. Register for the gala by clicking here. 

The purpose of the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation is to promote education by providing scholarships and educational programs to Greek American college students who, guided by the values of their Hellenic upbringing, have the potential to become life-long significant achievers and contribute meaningfully to society.

“We are excited to debut the ceremony across the world again. We’re going to do a hybrid event with a viewing party (in person) in downtown Chicago, on a rooftop with a view of the city,” stated Scholarship director Peter Korbakes in a recent interview with Greek Reporter.

“Last year we had over 24,000 views of the ceremony across Facebook and Youtube, Korbakes noted. “These are people who would not of course have been able to attend our Gala in person and hear from our kids. One of the big things was hearing from the recipients and hearing what they’re doing.”

Asked by Greek Reporter how special this crop of students is this year, after battling the lockdowns and other deprivations due to Covid-19, Korbakes notes “I feel so bad for them because they really struggle. But they overcame so much. Even some of our premed and science majors were able to do research on Covid itself.,” he stated with pride.

One of the recipients, he noted, even did research on the topic of “Evolutionary Anthropology in a Post-Covid World.”

Robert A. Buhler, the Chairman of the board for PanHellenic Scholarships, tells Greek Reporter that the most enjoyable part of the whole process for him is that they now set up video interviews with the hopefuls, asking them on camera to discuss their plans and accomplishments as if that is part of the selection process — while he and Korbakes just sit back and listen to the students speak of their hopes and dreams.

At the very end, the winners — who have already been chosen from the large field of candidates — are presented with the news “You’re a PanHellenic Scholar!” The charming interviews and reactions are used in wonderful soundbites and videos that are now shown at the virtual galas. “These kids are definitely going to change the world,” Buhler says in admiration.

“We call gala ceremonies ‘Alumni Weekends’ now, where prior recipients speak to the current winners,” Korbakes notes. “We really make our gala weekend an experience. It’s really impactful because we develop a close relationship with our recipients,” he notes. The past few years, the kids have come back to the gala and we have a donor matching program where donors sponsor scholarships.”

“Even with the pandemic last year we had around 12 kids join our alumni board since they felt so connected with us.”

One of the stories that stood out most to Buhler, he stated, as that of a needs-based scholarship winner who out of necessity started a clotting exchange in which necessary items of clothing for those who need to make a good impression can choose what they need from a wardrobe bank. This is something that Buhler says will hopefully become a business for her.

Another scholarship winner’s mother suffered from chronic kidney disease. The student took it upon himself to embark on nephrology research in high school — and he has now not only developed a treatment for his mother’s kidney problem but has also created a biomedical company that has already received Level I venture capital funding.

“He is super passionate about research,” Korbakes notes before adding, “And his time management is incredible — he is also a member of the National Cypriot Ski Team.”

PanHellenic Scholarships award deserving students after a difficult year

Each year, the foundation awards $250,000 in scholarships. The PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation is not a large membership-based organization. Rather, there is a Board of Directors consisting of 14 members and an Advisory Board made up of 23 couples who guide the organization.

“The benefit of couples is that with a charity or a school your decisions are actually a family- and couple-decision process,” says Buhler.

“If you have an Advisory Board with couples, they both have a different set of talents coming to the events. They both have different set of ideas, they both buy into the process. And so our Advisory Board is very involved and very significant to the process.”

Buhler is also President and CEO of Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin.

To raise the money needed for the annual scholarships, a unique group of giving options are available to the community. Donors can choose to give an annual amount for ten years. For instance, they might choose to donate $50,000, $100,000 or $200,000, in equal payments over ten years.

“They typically make their donation in recognition of a family member or a loved one, and it becomes a nice way for them to effectively make a very impactful donation. So, their family makes a commitment of $50,000 over five years. They then know that they can come to the Gala every year in Chicago as a family event. They generally fill a table and have a family event. They pick a scholar each year from our forty kids and, at their option, they meet the scholar and get to understand the scholar’s family and struggles, ambitions and aspirations, and many times people follow up with the scholars very actively,” noted Buhler.

Scholarships are distributed among students throughout the country. In 2020, eight were granted to students from the midwest, 25 from the northeast, five from the south, and two from the west.

Since 2002, 570 scholarships have been distributed among qualified Greek-American students, including the pandemic-ravaged year of 2020.

Choosing from the hundreds of applicants for candidates is very difficult work, handled by an independent group of academics, according to Buhler.

“Chris, to his credit from day one, set up an academic committee that was really independent and set the standards and the curriculum. Chris may have come up with the essay questions for the students to write about, regarding their Hellenic focus. Some of the questions were pretty tricky and pretty tough Greek historical questions that the students had to research.

“The academic committee is a marvelous group of independent people. We have seven members on the committee. There are professors from across the country who work very hard. Of the 200 applications this year, they have to winnow them down to 40, including needs-based and non-needs based applicants.

“The applications are due January 31st. So they work all of February, March, and hopefully by the end of April we announce the selection of scholars,“ said Buhler.

Being selected is a difficult process for candidates, as they must submit their past curriculums, their grade point averages, and, finally, letters of recommendation.

“Then we hone in on their Hellenism. Unfortunately, we’ve had 4.0 students going to great schools who have great aspirations and are going to do wonderful things, but they don’t really have much Hellenic depth in their lives. So they either haven’t or they don’t seem to have a pizzazz to do something in their lives about their culture. So some of those get winnowed away,” adds Buhler.

“Typically, a recipient must be a freshman and has to be done with his first semester. We then calibrate each year. So, a junior is going to receive a little bit more of an upgrade than a freshman, because if you’re a 3.9 freshman, that means you have one semester, and that’s good, but it’s not like a 3.9 junior. We do have some freshman this year, but this is typically designed to have upperclassmen who have been able to sustain these high grades.”

In 2020, the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation transformed its annual Gala into a virtual gathering, due to pandemic restrictions.

The streaming link can be found here.


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