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Feature Thu Sep 15 2011

Promoting Scholarship: A Conversation with John Schultz and Betty Shiflett

Fundraising reminds me of going door to door to sell World's Finest candy bars when I was a kid. When I got older, fund raising turned into semi-formal galas. These days I've noticed fund raising has returned to passing around the collection plate, so to speak; it's Kickstarter, it's a tips jar, it's a cover charge.

The next Windy City Story Slam, happening on September 18, mixes tradition with a bit of creativity. The scheduled bout will benefit the John Schultz and Betty Shiflett Story Workshop Scholarships of Columbia College's Fiction Writing department. Event producer and Story Slam's founder Bill Hillmann saw a need to step in and support one of the oldest scholarships for writers at his Alma mater. I met up with the scholarship's John Schultz and Betty Shiflett to talk about their program, the Slam, and scholarship since the death of in-state funded grants.

We grabbed something to drink before we began. With his doppio (a double espresso) in hand, Schultz took his briefcase and led Shiflett, with her Tazo tea (pomegranate-flavored), and me from one of the many South Loop Starbucks, up to his office in the Fiction Writing Department on Wabash Ave. The north-facing view into the loop distracted me for a second, but I didn't forget why I was there: to talk to two of the city's elder statesmen, two founding members of Columbia's widely renowned Fiction Writing department -- two people who have been teaching longer than most of their students have been alive. Shultz wrote the book on the program (no really, Writing From Start to Finish is the department's text, written by Shultz in 1982), and in their long tenure as faculty, one of their lasting achievements has been their namesake scholarship.

Thumbnail image for john-and-betty.jpg

Betty Shifflet and John Schultz

The two started the John and Betty scholarship in 1997. At that point, it was one of the first student scholarships at Columbia. "We retired, we had a little money, somebody had a little idea, everybody thought it was wonderful," explained Shiflett.

"We retired so we could work full time," jested Schultz, beaming his wide-mouthed grin.

The two told me that they began to see their students struggling to afford pursuing higher education. These were students from all over the Chicago land area that had talent but not the funds to continue their studies.

"That was the sort of thing we saw behind the scholarship," said Shultz, "basically helping people that who certainly didn't come from affluent areas, [who had] a combination of aid and demonstrated ability, people who were going to drop out or had dropped out for a while. People who were at a point where they had to make a choice."

They decided to help make the choice easier for these students. "They deserve better than that," Shiflett urged.

This wasn't a foreign concept to either of them. They had seen a wide swath of students from various backgrounds. "We had published a book once of work from a summer program from high school dropouts that was really striking, really good stuff," said Schulz. "Of course it's not news that an awful lot of kids that drop out are really bright, intelligent kids."

Early on, they supported the scholarship with fundraisers in the form of formal diners. The two worked with department faculty and staff to plan these events. Their fund raising efforts changed with the times. Enter one of their former students, Bill Hillmann, who wanted to use his event the Windy City Story Slam as a means provide a new partnership for the couple. "I know there's a certain kind of magic that people expect from these things," said Shiflett of the Story Slam. "What it takes is someone that knows where the magic is at." That would be Hillmann, ex-boxer and writer, acting as emcee. The slam pits readers against each other, leaving the crowd to vote on a winner. His events bring together storytellers, who in turn bring in their crowd.

"It's very much neighborhood driven," Shiflett said. "You bring your clique."

Such a dedicated crowd is welcomed, as the cover charge all goes to a worthy cause. Like a real boxing match, they've even offered VIP seating for a few dollars more.

"Very small donations can potentially make a big difference," expressed Shultz. "You welcome $25 as much as you welcome anything else. I think that's pretty important."

"Twenty five dollars is a lot of money," said Shiflett.

"Getting a lot of people together can make a big difference. You get 100 people to give $25 each, it can make a big difference," Schultz added.

During their early efforts, multiple students received aid per year. I was curious how that really worked. Shultz laid it out for me. "Well, the scholarship programs all over the country are, as financial people say, under the water. They may have been on top four years ago but now they are below the water. There has to be a different structure, not just for Columbia or any of us but for larger universities, etc, that have to create current use funds. So that's what we've done here is create current use funds. Any money given will go directly to support student scholarships this year. Fifteen years ago it was different. Some countries turn around and put their money into education and they win because of it and I hope we can some how come to that reasoning ourselves."

This still didn't cover all the students they saw in need. "It's significant for the student that get the award, but it's a drop in the sea of humanity that needs the help!" he exclaimed. He took a drink from his coffee to settle down. Financial support is a larger problem that they cannot tackle alone. Leading as examples, fellow faculty, like Patty McNair (The Temple of Air), followed suit, creating similar scholarships for students.

This isn't something new for Illinois students. Back in fall of 2009, funding for in-state aid like the MAP or Pell grants was being cut. This has made it hard for students to leave a four-year institution without amassing a sizable debt.

"I've come in recently and have heard students talking about how far along they are and how much they are going to owe, something like $120k. I mean that's insane," Shultz said raising his bushy gray eyebrows for effect. "There is something wrong with the system. Basically the whole system is benefiting from the education the student is getting. It helps their tax paying power because it generally ups their performance in the employment margin and really they're paying it back."

The story slams are almost an extension of the department. Various alums and faculty members often grace the stage. "Yeah it's kind of a fun alum thing and those are not always fun," joked Shiflett. For this upcoming scholarship fundraiser, it will seem as if they are still in the classroom. Some of the word games they've developed for class might even make their way onto the stage, inviting up audience members as contestants against each other. As for the lineup, they'll be surrounded by Columbia faculty Joe Meno, Andy Allegretti, Ann Hemenway, and Gary Johnson -- their close friends and colleagues. The event remains a gesture of their goodwill and longstanding efforts to give back to a future generation of writers.

The Windy City Story Slam, John and Betty Scholarship fundraiser, is happening at 7:30pm Sunday, Sept. 18, at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave.

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Patricia Ann McNair / September 16, 2011 8:33 AM

A lovely interview with John and Betty, two very influential folks on the Chicago (and national) literary scene. Thanks, John W. for sharing this with us, and I hope that it reminds people to add their support to an important effort!

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