Oil company creates $50 million scholarship program
Feb. 1, 2007
NOTE: A photograph is available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Jane Dennis*
EL DORADO, Ark. (UMNS) - United Methodist students attending an Arkansas high school are among recipients of a serendipitous gift of hope from an oil company.
El Dorado-based Murphy Oil Corp. announced Jan. 22 that it has established a $50 million college scholarship program for nearly all of the town's high school graduates over the next 20 years.
"This is a gift of a future for our area youth," said the Rev. Jim Polk, pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Dorado. "Everyone here is ecstatic. We really didn't in any way see it coming. We're just dumbfounded. It's truly a great gift."
Murphy Oil is putting up $5 million a year for 10 years to fund The El Dorado Promise, which is expected to continue for at least 20 years. Students can use the scholarship money at an Arkansas institution or any out-of-state college. But the annual scholarships are capped at the highest resident tuition rate at an Arkansas public university, which is currently about $6,000.
Students who attended school in El Dorado since kindergarten are eligible for the full amount, while students who attended for all four years of high school can get 65 percent. Those who have been in the district for less than four years are ineligible.
The program begins with this spring's graduating class of about 250 at El Dorado High School.
First Church impact
About 30 of the 40 teenagers active in the youth program at First United Methodist attend El Dorado High School and are expected to benefit from the scholarship program.
"We had kept it a pretty tight secret," said Claiborne Deming, Murphy Oil's president and chief executive, who is also a member of First United Methodist. "It was a surprise, and the response has been really extraordinary and wonderful. We've seen a gush of tears, awe and joy."
The oil company's board of directors was seeking a way to "make a significant impact on El Dorado, Murphy's home," Deming explained. Board members agreed that the scholarship program would provide "the biggest bang for the buck and will impact many young people's lives."
The company is also counting on the residual effects to include attracting new businesses to El Dorado and creating better jobs for students who return after graduating from college.
At an assembly announcing the program, school Superintendent Bob Watson called the program "life changing" for students who have worked hard but could not have attended college because of financial limitations.
"We know it's such a challenge to pay for college these days, and so many families struggle with that. We wanted to make college a reality for children in El Dorado" and "lift the burden off the shoulders" of families, Deming said.
"It's a clear sign of a way forward for Arkansas education in general and our students in El Dorado specifically," Polk said. "The great thing is it's for everybody, no strings attached. It's not based on grade performance, it's not a needs-based program. ... It's just saying you go through school, and we want to make sure you have a chance for a college education."
Amazement and gratitude
The first reaction by most people has been amazement, Polk said. "Then, almost in the next breath, we recognize what a generous offer, what a blessing this is, and how thankful we are that there are people who genuinely want to help the community and help others."
El Dorado's population is about 21,000. It is about 120 miles south of Little Rock in Arkansas' oil-and-gas producing region. The town is part of Union County, where the per-capita income is less than $32,000, and fewer than 15 percent of county residents have college diplomas.
Murphy Oil last year was ranked 193rd on Fortune magazine's list of the nation's largest companies, with revenue of $11.9 billion. It is a major supplier of gasoline stations at Wal-Mart stores and Sam's Clubs.
"There's gratitude everywhere for this gift," Polk said, "and a real sense of hope that this will make a huge impact on our area."
*Dennis is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Conference.
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