Fund Profile: The Margaret Derwin Scholarship

An unfamiliar voice cut through the heat one summer evening at a community garden in Salisbury, where a young volunteer was working a last shift before his first year of college.

“Hey!” the voice called. “Are you Becket Harney?” A man Becket did not recognize was leaning out his car window, waiting for a reply. Becket eyed him warily and said yes.

“Your town loves you,” the man said. “Your town is so proud of you.” Then he was off.

Now a college graduate, Becket offers this story as a way to describe what it feels like to be chosen for the Margaret Derwin scholarship. In 2012, a committee of local residents awarded him $25,000 annually toward college, along with $5,000 for a summer enrichment program. He is one of seven students from Housatonic Valley Regional High School with outsize dreams and modest means to earn this transformative support.

That stranger’s message was exactly the one donor and longtime Salisbury resident Sara Wardell hoped to convey when she first stepped into the role of benefactor a decade ago. At the time, Sara knew another promising Housy student, the scholarship’s namesake, whose plans after high school were on hold due to financial constraints.

“Margaret was an honor student, and a strong-minded young woman—a self-starter who could figure out things for herself,” Sara recalls. “When I asked her what she wanted to do, she said she wanted to go to college in Boston.”

Sara’s reaction surprised them both: if Margaret got into college, Sara would pay half her tuition, leaving Margaret “something to strive for” in seeking the other half.

Accepted at Wheelock, Margaret secured the financing she needed and headed to Boston. She made the dean’s list every quarter and earned a free ride to study social work in graduate school. “She wanted to work with kids,” Sara says. “She had her life completely mapped out.”

Sadly, Margaret was diagnosed with a rare cancer before she could enter her master’s program. Sara saw her during a brief remission—when Margaret was still focused on “all the things she wanted to do”—and then again during her last days in hospice.

“When Margaret died, I thought, ‘I really want this young woman to be remembered,’” Sara says. Three months later, she established the Margaret Derwin Scholarship at Berkshire Taconic.

By opening this fund, Sara hoped to give a boost to Margaret’s high school, while memorializing a talented graduate. She also drew on the example of her parents, who quietly helped to send a young woman to Wellesley and who anonymously supported the town’s institutions.

She cites the loss of an older sibling when Sara was young as an event that reshaped her identity and values. “I discovered there are other things in life more important than what money can do for you,” Sara says.

One example is putting exceptional students through college. Once acting anonymously, today Sara wants to get others invested in making the scholarship a sustainable, regional project. While she considers how to do that, her mission to promote higher education in the six small Connecticut towns the high school serves has already brought residents together.

Just ask her friend Carol Magowan, a longtime committee member. “My life has certainly been enriched by getting to know these kids. Hearing their stories helps me understand my community an awful lot better.”

For Alexa Curtiss, the first Margaret Derwin scholar, knowing that her community was behind her was a powerful motivator. This fall, she started her first professional job as a specialist caring for hospitalized children. “No matter where I go,” Alexa says, “I will always be representing Margaret’s dreams and my hometown’s values.”

The chance to chase a dream may be the real gift at the heart of this scholarship. “These kids should know they can do really good things and we will support them,” Sara says. “And now, it’s up to them.”

MARGARET DERWIN SCHOLARS

Alexa Curtiss, 2011, Wheelock College (B.S. ’16, M.S. ’17)
Becket Harney, 2012, Cornell University (B.S. ’17)
Cristian Umana, 2013, Cornell University (Class of ’18)
Emily Sullivan, 2014, Cornell University (Class of ’19)
Shelby Jacquier, 2015, Cazenovia College (Class of ’20)
Sara VanDeusen, 2016, Connecticut College (Class of ’21)
Taylor Sherwood, 2017, TBD (Class of ’22)

Derwin

Margaret Derwin

Scholars

Donor Sara Wardell (center) is flanked by Derwin scholars Emily Sullivan, Becket Harney, Cristian Umana and Shelby Jacquier.