About the author
Darinda Sharp serves as director of communications for the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
On a rainy Friday in October, five thankful students had lunch with a donor whose gift to the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism changed their lives.
Sue Walk Burnett (B.A. ’68), a business owner with 125 full-time employees, decided she wanted to make a difference for students who were academically accomplished but needed financial assistance.
"Many of my staff are recent graduates," Burnett said. "They have a lot of debt coming out of college. It's sad to me to see people in their 20s with $50,000-$60,000 of debt. That's $6,000 a year that they could be spending on other things."
A loyal Lemke alumna, Burnett has been contributing to the university in various capacities for decades. Many journalism alumni will recognize her name from seminars held in the Sue Walk Burnett Reading Room, located on the first floor of Kimpel Hall. Earlier this year, she expanded that support to scholarships.
"People give big gifts in other areas, other disciplines in other colleges, but not many have given to journalism," Burnett said. "What I gave wasn't much at all, but it was a way to make a difference in an area where not many others are doing so."
"We learned one day that Sue wanted to give the department $5,000," said Larry Foley, chair of the Department of Journalism. "That meant real financial help for five students. It was like manna from heaven."
Due to the timing of the gift, the department’s traditional application process was not an option, so the faculty went on a search for successful students who were also hard workers and would most benefit from this unexpected boost to their academic goals.
"For someone who is deep into their studies, working hard, doing well and already receiving financial aid, $1,000 is huge," Foley said.
Each student also has the opportunity to qualify for an additional $1,000 depending on his or her grade point average.
Anthony Brickman Jr., Brian Dunaway, Coleman Herman, Caitlin Johnson and Meaghan Stephens had the opportunity to thank Burnett in person when they all met last fall. And Burnett was able to see the positive impact she is making in the lives of these students.
"It meant a lot to meet Mrs. Burnett," said Herman, a freshman in the broadcast sequence. "It's an opportunity that most scholarship recipients don't have, so having the chance to express my gratitude face to face was amazing."
"I have always worked full time while in college, and though that hasn't changed, this helps me more than Mrs. Burnett could have known," said Stephens, a junior in the advertising and public relations sequence. "I was going to be about a grand short from my loans, and now I don't have to worry about it. That's in complete thanks to her generosity."
"I come from a large family, and many of us are attending college right now," said Johnson, a senior in the news/editorial sequence. "This has been my first year where I am fully supporting myself financially, but because of this scholarship I will have more opportunities to focus on my studies. It is nothing short of amazing, and I am immensely grateful."
The students and Burnett had the opportunity to learn more about one another while sharing their meal. Burnett asked the students which of them were already receiving financial aid, and all of them raised their hands.
"Many times, you write a check to a charity, and you don’t really know where it's going, but this was personal," Burnett said. "I got to learn about each of them and what they plan to do with their careers and degrees."
"This scholarship, and Mrs. Burnett's part in creating it, matters a great deal to me personally," said Brickman, a sophomore honors student. "My family is in a rough spot financially. In addition to my schooling they’re putting my sister through her senior year of private school, and next year she will also be attending the U of A. While I do receive some help from my family, I am responsible for covering the majority of my schooling, and that's why this scholarship means so much to me."
"Hearing that you've received a new scholarship is like music to any college student's ears," Herman said. "This summer I hope to participate in the journalism department’s study abroad program in Belize and gain more experience with international journalism. After graduating, I hope to work in the ethics department of a national news organization and help to make ethical journalism the new normal."
"Mrs. Burnett's generosity and support for journalism students is inspiring," said Dunnaway, a 29-year-old senior in the news/editorial sequence, U.S. Navy veteran and father of three. "One of my goals for the future is to be successful enough to support the journalism department and the university as she has graciously done for so many years."
Burnett is the founder and president of Burnett Specialists, a staffing and placement firm, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. With locations in five Texas cities, the Houston-based company places people in temporary and permanent administrative and professional positions.
Among Burnett’s many awards and honors is the University of Arkansas Distinguished Alumni Award , which she received in 2008. The same year, she was named one of Houston’s 50 most Influential Women by Houston Woman Magazine. She was named Texas Businesswoman of the Year in 2012 by the Texas Women's Chamber of Commerce. In 2013, she was inducted into the Greater Houston Women’s Hall of Fame.
"Sue’s achievements in the business world are rivaled only by her interest in seeing others succeed," Foley said. "Seeing her interact with students whose academic careers have been directly effected by her gift was one of the highlights of the semester. I don't know who was happier, Sue or the students."