By Sarah Briggs
You could say this story started in 1979 in George Malone's accounting class. Don and Angela Sheets admit that learning how to read a balance sheet occasionally gave way to flirtation back then as the two sat side-by-side in class. Those days saw the beginning of a lifetime partnership—and a love for Albion College—that have continued to this day.
The Sheets are unabashedly devoted to Albion—and that has been manifested in their longstanding involvement as volunteers, Don as a College trustee and now board chair and Angela as an admission volunteer and now chair of the Admission Ambassadors program launched this past summer. Since graduation they have been loyal donors as well.
Earlier this fall, they established the J. Donald Sheets and Angela Sheets Family Scholarship Fund through a $1-million gift. The Sheets created the endowed scholarship fund to bring an Albion education within reach for high-achieving students who have financial challenges. The announcement came as a fitting exclamation point concluding the September 12 inauguration ceremony for President Mauri Ditzler and was intended not only to help launch Ditzler's presidency but to honor Mike Frandsen, who left the College in June after serving as interim president during the 2013-14 academic year following nine years as a professor and administrator.
Speaking during the inauguration, Don noted, "Our trustees, alumni, faculty, students, staff, and community stand with you, Mauri, and we will work together to build an exciting future for this special college. Combined and marching together, we are unstoppable. The trustees are confident in your leadership, vision, and passion for the liberal arts."
Strike up a conversation with Don and Angela and their passion for Albion quickly shines through. Their gift is driven both by an appreciation for their Albion education and a desire to make the same experience possible for future generations of students.
"We know this scholarship will make a difference in students' lives," Angela says. "That's what we're all about—changing lives—and sharing our Albion with others."
Creating this fund is a way to give back to the institution that nurtured capabilities that have been critical in their professional lives.
Don, who is executive vice president and chief financial officer at Dow Corning Corporation in Midland, says that throughout his career he has needed to work across all sectors of the company from research and marketing to manufacturing and finance. He maintains the breadth of his Albion education has been key in doing that successfully.
Albion, he says, also cultivates flexibility in addressing new challenges and opportunities.
"In our business at Dow Corning, developing and marketing silicone products worldwide, the push to innovate is constant. I've had to stay nimble and adapt in this everchanging landscape. That's where the good faculty, small classes, and high expectations really helped."
Angela, who entered a career in advertising and public relations on leaving Albion, values the communication skills she developed in college, and she continues to tap those in her volunteer work, which encompasses not only her efforts on Albion's behalf but also causes ranging from domestic violence prevention to the arts. "Being able to express yourself orally and on bluebook exams was important when we were at Albion. You had to be able to defend your opinions. No matter what department you were in, that was expected of you."
Faculty set the bar high for students, she notes.
"At Albion, our professors brought things out in us that we didn't know we had and made us rise to a higher standard intellectually."
Succeeding in that environment breeds a sense of confidence that stays with you long after graduation, she adds. "Albion develops leaders who say, 'I can do this—I can work my way through it.'"
A liberal arts education, they insist, enables today's graduates to thrive in an increasingly global society.
"We need institutions like Albion," Don says. "Many of us work in teams drawn from around the world to collaborate and share and learn and develop. The world is rushing to where liberal arts graduates are best equipped to go. We need more people with these broader intellectual skills."
The challenge for private colleges, they acknowledge, is to help high school students and their families understand the value in liberal arts education when faced with a price tag that many see as beyond their reach.
"We've been helping to attract students to Albion as much as we can over the past few years," Angela explains. "You identify students who you know would be a great match for Albion, but in the end they choose to go to other colleges that appear to be less expensive. It's painful for the student, and it's painful for us and for the parents.
"We want to make it possible for everyone who wants to go to Albion to do so."
Don continues the thought. "We hope our gift allows students to do great things and create happiness in their lives. We also see it as repayment for what we owe to Albion. We've had a wonderful life. Our Albion education prepared us to do the different things we've done professionally and personally. When you have the means to give back, you should."
They say they want their gift to be a catalyst, encouraging other alumni to support Albion in any way they can.
"Remember the role that Albion has played in your life," Don says. "You can't deny that it had a great impact. Now is the time, in particular, when the College needs to be affordable for students. We must expand our reach, and we need the resources to do it.
"Albion needs the help of its alumni right now—to make sure that today's students have the same experience we had."
Their gift is also a measure of their confidence in Albion's future.
"From our point of view, doing this is a signal that we believe Albion College will be around for a long time," Don adds. "We expect that both our leadership and the leadership of the administration in making Albion more affordable for students is a long-term commitment. We need to dedicate significant effort to building our endowment for scholarships over many years."
Ultimately, they believe giving should be about advancing the institutions you most cherish.
"We're at a stage now where we are doing some prioritizing in our lives," Angela reflects. "What does our life together stand for? What are the key pillars in our value system? We owe a huge part of our life's success to having met at Albion and having an Albion education. It's time to say what we stand for. We want to address the importance of Albion in our lives. And we hope others will do the same."