Melissa Pellegrin Memorial Scholarship Program
Reaches Noteworthy Milestone with 2014 Awards
By Mark Wray
Senior Member and Director-at-Large, Orlando-Central Florida Chapter
In April 2014, the STC Orlando Central Florida chapter will honor one or more technical communication students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) with the coveted STC – UCF Melissa Pellegrin Memorial Scholarship Award. While this year’s award ceremony represents the 17th consecutive year the chapter has recognized and rewarded exceptional technical communication scholarship, it is also notable that this is the first year the award will originate from a fully endowed scholarship fund that will honor Melissa’s memory in perpetuity. Therein lies a short story and an interesting piece of our chapter’s history.
Mellissa was a 1994 UCF graduate and member of the STC Orlando Central Florida chapter. She was an exceptional student and after graduation became a valued colleague who served on the chapter’s Education committee. She was employed as a technical communicator with The Technical Resource Connection, Inc., in Tampa, until her untimely death in April 1997. In October of that year chapter leaders officially dedicated the memorial fund and awarded the first scholarship in what has become a time-honored chapter tradition.
Over the years, the chapter made the growth of the scholarship fund a priority in its development efforts. Through continued outreach and careful stewardship of gifts received, those efforts were largely successful and resulted in an unbroken string of monetary awards and public recognition of outstanding UCF technical communication students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The chapter nurtured the fund through careful exposure to market forces in a private investment account and slowly grew the account balance to slightly more than $15,000, but the economic hardships that gripped the global economy in 2008-2009 forced a significant change of direction. In particular, the severe market downturn late in 2007 erased more than $3,000 of the fund’s value.
During the recession, STC membership fell precipitously. While STC was certainly not the only association that suffered declining membership and associated revenue, the recession exposed a flaw in the Society’s funding model that threatened its existence as a viable fiscal entity. For many years STC operated with a membership dues structure that was insufficient to pay for all of the services that it provided to its members. That model worked as long as enough members choose to attend the STC Summit, the organization’s annual conference. The Society used proceeds from the annual conference to make up the shortfall that membership dues did not cover. In 2008 and 2009, as companies and universities slashed travel budgets attendance at Summit plummeted, and the weakness of this funding model became clear. Since conference hotels are booked years in advance, STC was caught with large blocks of rooms reserved based on pre-Recession attendance levels and took a major hit when many of the rooms wound up unoccupied (yet had to be paid for under contract with the hotels.
At the local chapter level, during administrative council meetings, some members expressed concern about the fiscal viability of the national organization going forward. In one scenario that was discussed STC would become insolvent, enter bankruptcy, and local chapters would be forced by court order to turn over any and all chapter funds held locally to satisfy creditors. Technically, all funds held by individual STC communities are considered Society assets, so if this scenario occurred it would obviously put the hard-earned Pellegrin Fund monies at risk. Chapter leaders began looking for alternatives that would preserve the fund if STC ceased to exist.
The idea of transferring the existing fund to the UCF Foundation surfaced and rapidly emerged as the best alternative the chapter had for safeguarding the resource from any possible dissolution of the national STC organization. Chapter officers contacted UCF Foundation officials, who presented the concept of working towards an endowed fund which would participate in the earnings of the Foundation’s investment pool, and which would offer the best chance at creating a self-sustaining scholarship.
In 2009, the chapter’s officers officially voted to transfer the fund to UCF Foundation custody. Foundation rules specify that a fund must reach a total of $25,000 before it is endowed, and the chapter entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Foundation which outlined a 5-year plan to reach that goal. Through consistent fund raising endeavors the chapter reached and surpassed that goal in 2012.
Special mention must be made of significant contributions from Melissa’s parents, the Society (via a sizable grant when the fund was started), heritage PBS&J, and the Atkins Foundation the umbrella organization through which Atkins Global (which acquired PBS&J) coordinates its philanthropic efforts in North America. These sustaining gifts, as well as dozens of individual, enabled the chapter to reach the $25,000 goal fully 1 year ahead of schedule. After a mandatory 1-year waiting period, the STC-UCF Mellissa Pellegrin Memorial Scholarship fund stands ready in 2014 to recognize and celebrate its first award recipients at the chapter’s April meeting by disbursing its first “spendables” from the fund’s earnings in 2013.
The 17-year (and counting) history of the Pellegrin Fund is a microcosm of what many find so rewarding about their association with the STC Orlando Central Florida chapter. It is a story of a group of people of optimism, who demonstrated cheerful perseverance while facing adversity, negotiated their differences, and exercised good faith and ethical behavior with resources with which they were entrusted. It shows what can be accomplished when committed professionals work together toward a common goal, and it makes me proud to continue my association with our 7-time Chapter of Distinction.