INA, Ill. – Right out of high school and self-conscious of whether he was “college material,” Gary Sweeten found himself at the crossroads of education. Simply put, he had to decide whether to continue or quit. He said turning to Rend Lake College was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.
It was actually RLC’s founding name, Mt. Vernon Community College, that he turned to back in 1958. RLC wasn’t established until 1966. By then, Sweeten was busy earning his master’s degree at Southern Illinois University where he graduated magna cum laude. Forty five years later, the 73-year-old Dr. Gary Sweeten is helping others who are at the crossroads.
Last week, the Dr. Gary Sweeten Scholarship to RLC received a Bronze Major Gift Award at the 22nd Annual Rend Lake College Foundation Scholarship Banquet. The scholarship that he and his wife Karen established earlier this year with a $20,000 endowment will provide distinguished support to RLC students for years to come. This year, it has impacted the life of its first recipient – Lauren Rue of Mt. Vernon, who is a 26-year-old single mother in the nursing program at RLC.
Sweeten said the scholarship aims to help students who are returning to education and might have a hard time making it without financial and emotional support.
“I want to help other people like me find encouragement to go back to school,” he said.
“It’s really hard as a single mom working two jobs,” Rue said. “[This scholarship] means I can stay in school. It’s a wonderful thing. I thanked [the Sweetens] and I told them I really appreciate them helping anyone continue on and find their dreams. It’s really hard this day and age to stay afloat. I told them about my son, Haydn, growing up and how he is my motivation for staying in school.”
“She’s very highly qualified and dedicated,” Sweeten said of Rue. “She fits our criteria perfectly. ... Now she knows what she wants to do and is ready to work hard and become a nurse.”
“Dr. Sweeten is a refreshing example of what giving should look like,” said future RLCF CEO Shawna Hall. “He has donated generously to the RLCF by establishing two endowments designated to help students in great need. Through these endowments he has been able to pursue his incredible passion for knowledge by helping others further their education. He and his wife, Karen, are involved with their scholarship recipients not only financially, but on a mentoring basis as well.”
Sweeten also provides a scholarship with his older brother, Maurice, and kid brother, Tom. They established the Thomas J. and Leota L. Sweeten Christian Memorial Scholarship in honor of their parents. It is for students pursuing professions with missions that coincide with the Christian values their parents held dear as active members of Ina Baptist Church.
Sweeten shares that set of values. He said it was an encounter with God that gave him a strong desire to go to college. Before that, he felt he lacked the maturity, motivation and confidence to pursue education beyond high school.
“I didn’t do really well in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of academic sophistication. At Mt. Vernon Community College, the staff, faculty, administrators and counselors were very, very encouraging. They were helpful to myself and others like me – students who were returning to education.”
He said one faculty member, Betty Ann Ward, was especially influential.
“She is the reason I entered counseling,” he said. “She inspired me. I didn’t know what counselors did, but I decided I wanted to be like her.”
He now owns and operates Life Way Counseling – a large family and individual counseling agency in Cincinnati that employs 15 therapists. Part of his work there is teaching other counselors, he said. He is also a minister and operates a non-profit called Sweeten Life Systems.
In his mission to pass along the reward he has found in higher education, he could think of no place better than RLC – a college built right in his hometown of Ina.
“I found that this school was perfect,” said Sweeten.
Those considering joining Sweeten, and others like him, with scholarship opportunities for RLC students can contact the RLCF at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1214 or 1324.