Secret Santa Surprises Civil Engineering Class of 2021
By Tracy Seipel
Anonymous donors have just one request.
Marieli Rubio ’21 was in her bedroom at home in Napa County last Tuesday, right in the middle of checking grades and cleaning out her computer of old documents, when she noticed the email.
It was from her Department Chair, Professor Ed Maurer, with the rather curious subject line: “Gift to Seniors.”
As she read the email, Rubio was stunned: All 23 students in her civil engineering class of 2021 are receiving a $1,000 check from the parents of an alumnus.
While they wish to remain anonymous, the parents offered these words of wisdom and encouragement to capture the spirit of their offer:
“‘Pay it forward’ may have become a bit of a cliché in past years, but this is not the time to overlook its value. Short version: We are the parents of a Civil Engineering alum whose tasks during his last quarter at SCU included choosing between several very interesting, well-paying, career-oriented, and lifestyle-attractive job offers, even though the national economy was not the most favorable to new/recent college grads. We are very aware of how much he appreciated the support received from the department’s faculty and staff.
“We are well aware that this year’s graduating class has faced very unique challenges: (former professor of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering) Mark Aschheim’s passing, COVID-19, and the growing list of shut-downs and other restrictions that not only complicate their education but also their career goals.
“We cannot open up the world or turn the economy around for these students, but we can do a little something. All we ask is that as each looks back on the unique value of an SCU Civil Engineering degree, each then finds a way to ‘pay it forward.’”
The couple's thoughtful words, combined with their generous award and its altruistic message, resonated with each one of the seniors, who have finished their final undergraduate quarter.
“I was just overwhelmed with the emotion of this gift,” Rubio recalls, “because finances—especially for me and my family this year—have been tough to sort out.”
The wildfires that exploded across Napa Valley in September forced her mother and younger sister to evacuate not once, but twice. Each time, Rubio had to help them find a place to stay until they could return to their home, praying it had not burned down.
It was another hurdle for the family that is still struggling in the aftermath of her father’s 2015 death that had sent them into emotional and economic turmoil.
“I felt like my future was just crumbling before my eyes,” she recalls of that period in her life. “It definitely required a lot of growth, and a lot of optimism, not to give up on my dream to attend a four-year university.”
The donors’ anonymous gift, she says, could not have come at a better time: the money will help her buy a powerful new laptop—replacing the outdated one she’s had since high school—to speed up her engineering projects.
“I want to give them a huge thank you,” says Rubio. “And paying it forward is something I love to do; it’s one of the core values my family instilled in me, so I will return the favor.”
A True Blessing
Fellow civil engineering major Michael Reyes ’21 has had a difficult year as well, after his father, a civil engineer, recently passed away from cancer. Reyes is now living at home in Stockton with his mother.
The senior—until this year the student manager for the Bronco basketball team, whose home games his dad rarely missed—has thrown himself into his studies and a part-time job at the Hensel Phelps construction firm.
Which is where he was Tuesday when the email landed.
“Everyone in our civil engineering group message started responding when they saw it,” says Reyes of his fellow classmates, who along with department faculty and staff, are almost like a second family.
“Some of them said, ‘I wish I knew who they were because I would love to thank them or send them a letter,’” he recalls. Another student sent out a group message reminding everyone: “Make sure you pay it forward.”
Reyes couldn’t agree more.
“This gift is a true blessing,” he says of the check, which he plans to use for living expenses. “We all feel that way. Even if we cannot pay it forward this moment, there will come a time down the road when everyone in this class will have an opportunity to do that.”
Antidote to a Frustrating Year
Right around the time Reyes received the good news, San Jose-based Sarah Dao ’21 was at home studying Mandarin when she glanced at a new email on her phone.
“I was a little surprised, because I didn’t expect to hear from school during the break,” recalls Dao. Then she read the note—re-reading the words to be sure.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Dao. “It’s very difficult to be a college student now and looking for a new job. But somebody out there knows what we are going through,” says the senior, who plans to use the gift to pay for graduate school. After that, she hopes to create potable water systems for marginalized communities.
Not being able to spend her last year on campus with her classmates and professors, especially as they work on their senior design capstone projects, has been awfully frustrating for everyone, says Dao. Still, their professors have been readily available to help, as have classmates during late-night Zoom study sessions.
She says the unexpected windfall has lifted her spirits, and neither the check, nor the donors’ message, will ever be forgotten.
“I would like to thank them for reaching out to us, for inspiring us to keep going in our careers, and to pay this forward, in some way,” says Dao. “And we will.”