Saddles to Scholarships


By Cathy Gordon

It takes two for this rodeo ballet. One, the steely eyed cowboy intent on riding a brutish mass of hooves, horns and muscle. Two, the bull, itching to cast him aside like a ragdoll.

Bulls aren’t hardwired for submission.

Welcome to the world of rodeo, an adrenaline-pumping choreography of technique, rhythm and courage, set to an audience of cheers and groans. For the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, otherwise known as the San Antonio Livestock Exposition, SALE, the rodeo is a thrill ride for a cause. Beyond the sights and sounds—and an oddly intoxicating combination of funnel cakes and manure—the organization is changing the lives of Aggies through its scholarship program.

SALE’s scholarship fund, started in 1984, has awarded $17.8 million to Texas A&M University students over the years, recently surpassing 2,000 Aggie awardees—300 of whom are currently enrolled. Initially restricted to students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the scholarship program now encompasses nine colleges, including Mays Business School, the College of Engineering and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

It’s a mission that never gets old, said Cody Davenport ’98, executive director and CEO of the rodeo, which expects to draw nearly 2 million visitors to San Antonio’s AT&T Center Feb. 6-23.

“We have deep ties to Texas A&M, and the students on our scholarships are amazing. I’d say we are in safe hands with the next generation coming up,” he said. “Our very first scholarship back in 1984 went to an Aggie.”

RIDING THE SCHOLARSHIP

For Jason Edmondson ’19 ’21, a SALE scholarship meant flexibility to pursue his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics without worrying about debt. He was awarded $20,000 through SALE’s partnership with the Texas FFA Association during his senior year at Burnet High School.

“It was a very comprehensive scholarship and it definitely helped me along the way,” said Edmondson, who deferred college for one year to fulfill duties as the newly elected FFA state president. He crisscrossed Texas, giving presentations to high school students, staying with host families and honing his love of public speaking, which was sparked in high school.

He’s now working toward his master of international affairs at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service under a Robertson Foundation for Government graduate fellowship. And he’s learning real-world agricultural applications as a student worker at Texas A&M’s Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, an organization that provides science-based solutions to fight poverty and hunger in small farming communities around the world.

“The rodeo scholarship allowed me the flexibility to take a student worker job I was passionate about, rather than needed, and I’ve been there three and a half years,” Edmondson explained. “Working at Borlaug has been the greatest experience. I get to help across the board with anything they need, like going over budgets and proposals.”

His interest in agriculture was seeded at an early age through his paternal grandfather, who taught vocational agriculture at South Texas’ Pettus High School for 38 years. The school’s agriculture building is named after him.

He hopes to one day have an impact on agriculture the way his grandfather did. “I still run into people at Texas A&M who were his old students or grandchildren of his students,” said Edmondson, who seeks a career developing agricultural policy. He is applying for summer internships in Washington, D.C.

CHANGING LIVES

Nancy Loeffler, SALE’s chairman of the board, can relate to Edmondson’s love of agriculture. Though not raised in an agricultural environment, she grew to know its work ethic early through the San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo, where her parents volunteered.

“SALE and the scholarship program wouldn’t exist without our 6,000 volunteers,” she said.

More than 10,300 Texas youth have benefited from a SALE scholarship, translating into $210 million worth of awards, she added.

“It’s fun to watch these students and see them flower in life through their agricultural exposure.”

Working with Texas A&M as an educational partner has been a pleasure, said B. J. Hendler ’00, an assistant vice president with SALE who comes from a family of maroon.

“It’s not often in life that you get to marry up two of the things you really enjoy: Texas A&M and SALE,” he said. “Our Aggie scholarship recipients are incredible. They’ve taken active roles on campus and have won prestigious awards. Their values and principles were instilled in them at an early age, long before we even knew who they were. We’re simply encouraging their growth and keeping them on that path by supporting them in their studies.”

To that end, SALE is always looking for ways to expand student experiences. In the past couple of years, the scholarship fund has sponsored Aggie internships with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy, as part of the Texas A&M Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Program. SALE also awards a High Impact Program one-semester scholarship in which first-generation students study abroad in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. To date, 24 Aggies have been recipients.

“I wish I somehow knew how many kids would not have pursued an education without our scholarship,” Hendler mused. “There’s a bunch of them. This program has changed their path for life.”

Putting on a rodeo is no small feat, he added, but there’s a way to rejuvenate volunteers’ spirits when they’re feeling work-weary. “I tell the volunteers who are tired and down and worn out, maybe a little sick from the dust in the barn, just go watch a scholarship presentation. Watch a mom or dad cry with happiness. You’ll find yourself reenergized instantly.”

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