Retired Professor Goes Public With Philanthropy
A longtime anonymous donor to the University at Buffalo is relinquishing her obscurity now that she has retired in order to inspire others to support their passions through UB.
Bonnie Ott, associate professor emeritus in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, served as coordinator of the school's study abroad program in Barcelona, Spain, for 18 years and traveled there with groups of students on a regular basis.
In 2000, Bonnie anonymously created the Fenton Scholarship Fund to provide support to UB students who study abroad. In its 12 years of existence, the fund has benefited more than 20 students.
Bonnie says she is going public now because she wants people to know what inspired her support. "My heart is about public education. That's what this endowment is about," she says.
Bonnie, who earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of California Los Angeles, received a fellowship based on financial need and academic merit.
"It was how I got through college," she says, recalling that she paid just "$29 per semester" as an undergraduate, a pittance compared to the rapidly growing financial burden that many students today take on in order to complete college degrees.
"The European countries are able to provide education for their young people. Education should be a right, not a need," she says. "I think it's important that people know that public education is at a great disadvantage in this country. Unless we start to relieve that, we lose."
Bonnie established the Fenton Fund-named for her grandfather, Alfred Fenton-to help as many students as possible participate in UB travel programs. She called her work with the Barcelona program, begun in 1989, "the light of my life" for the invaluable experiences the trips offered to students.
"The more students are exposed to other cultures, especially those that treat their young people as valuable resources, the better. That kind of thinking eventually rubs off," she says.
The Barcelona program allows participants to "absorb the exuberance of southern Europe" as residents of Barcelona, living in apartments and studying firsthand the beauty of the buildings.
"They get to see the Mooric influence, which left its mark on Spain in its architecture after 700 years of rule," she says. "I can't say enough how important this is for students."
Bonnie says she wishes she had endless funding to give to public research universities like UB. "If I were Bill Gates, I'd make public higher education in this country all but free," she says.
For now, she is happy to have established the Fenton Fund, and she asks only one thing in return from the students who benefit from it. "I hope they pay it forward someday. I did," she says.
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