BEMIDJI -- At a memorial service for George Floyd held at North Central University back in June, University President Scott Hagan announced the creation of a George Floyd Memorial Scholarship for students of color and challenged every university around the country to establish a similar scholarship at their institutions.
Before he was even finished speaking, Betty Fulton Novotney had answered that call.
Floyd was killed on May 25 after former officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparking country-wide racial justice movements.
Novotney, a lifelong educator and a loyal Bemidji State alum, knows the meaningful change scholarships can bring, and when she heard the announcement, she -- and her three daughters Debbie Wietfeldt, Kathy Novotney and Molly Novotney -- began immediately coordinating with Bemidji State University to bring a scholarship for students of color to campus.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that is something that I think I could do to help those that aren’t getting the same opportunities,’” Novotney said. “That’s what it comes down to, we’re all not on the same playing field, and we are just trying to do something to help and give hope.”
The scholarship will be made available to one student of color at BSU each year, and is currently accepting additional funding.
Finding healing through a scholarship
The four women are intimately familiar with the healing power of a scholarship and the way it can change lives. In 2014, the family lost their husband and father, Larry. He was a beloved educator and coach in their home community of Seneca, Ill.
The family established a scholarship in his honor in their hometown and have been awarding it to high school seniors there for the past six years.
“One of the reasons my girls were supportive of a scholarship is we had experience in the healing that a scholarship can bring,” Betty said. “To help someone, to give hope is very rewarding and healing. It was something I knew brought me healing bit by bit, coming out of losing a husband, helped me move forward. You’re helping someone move forward and continuing to support them going forward.”
Betty explained that the family is not one of exceptional means, rather exceptional circumstances. The funding from which the scholarship endowment was provided is from Larry’s life insurance policy.
“As horrible as my dad’s death was, it provided us with these funds,” Debbie said. “It was kind of an easy step, I think, and also a very cathartic step. Our parents also put a very strong emphasis on giving back.”
Debbie said her father would’ve been supportive of the scholarship at BSU, saying during the events this summer in Minneapolis, she could’ve seen her father jumping in to help.
All three of Betty’s daughters stressed the importance of community involvement within their family, fostered in them by their parents.
“That was something that was instilled in us by our parents, and we wanted to continue that,” Kathy said. “That’s kind of been our natural go-to when there’s been an option for it.”
Molly said throughout her childhood she had a postcard hanging in her room, with a quote on it reading, “It is not enough to be compassionate, you must act.” She said this is the attitude perpetuated by her father, and one she hoped to emulate as well.
“We’ve been raised to care about each other, care about others, care about everyone,” she said. “This is our family’s way of hopeful helping and opening doors.”
As a family of educators, they also know the formative power of an education.
“What we know is that education is such a huge, vital piece in helping people get upward mobility whether it’s a job, or learning there is another world outside of everything. That’s what helped all of us get to where we are today,” Molly said. “We saw what education did for our family. We know what that does to help people get access, this is quite literally the easiest decision we could have made.”
Who is eligible for this?
The only eligibility requirements are that the applicant be a student of color, a BSU student, and actively involved in the betterment of their community.
It was important to Betty that the grade point average requirement on the scholarship not be prohibitively high. To the Novotney family, the more important factor is the student’s involvement in the community.
Molly said she hopes future BSU scholarship recipients will know that the whole Novotney family is on their team. “There’s somebody out there that’s rooting for you, and wants you to succeed,” she said.
The family hopes the foundation of the scholarship at BSU will serve as a catalyst and a call to action, to inspire others to act, and individuals to apply for and contribute to the scholarship. Applications are not yet available for students to apply to the scholarship, but will likely be made available soon, Betty said.
Those interested in helping grow the scholarship fund can make a gift on the Bemidji State Alumni website.