As a youth in 1940s Detroit, Don Tapia encountered domestic violence outside his doorsteps, sported one pair of shoes and sold magazines to provide household necessities for his mother and sister.
Today, the 72-year-old grandfather of six is a retired businessman who recently donated $4 million to his alma mater, Saint Leo University, to build a new School of Business center with nine classrooms, computer labs and technology suite.
Tapia’s donation, the largest single gift in the school’s history, is also a campus-improvement gift from an online alumnus who never stepped foot on campus until graduation.
Tapia took courses at Saint Leo through its Center for Online Learning to receive his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration.
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which tracks large donations to colleges and universities, says money from online alumni like Tapia will be essential to institutions as the economy continues to struggle.
“Online graduates have as much to give back to their alma maters in terms of time, talent and treasure as their on-campus counterparts. They may have as much capacity to make major gifts,” says Rae Goldsmith, vice president of Advancement Resources for CASE.
“Institutions may not have the resources to provide critically needed classroom and laboratory facilities without significantly increasing tuition — which they would almost certainly prefer not to do — so private donations of this magnitude are especially important to help educational institutions as well as the students who attend them,” she says.
Goldsmith did not provide specific ideas on how colleges could seek money from online alumni but says fundraising campaigns directed to those students should be different.
“The challenge is that online alumni have a very different experience and sense of engagement with the institution, so approaching them just as one would a traditional student may not be effective,” she says.
Saint Leo President Arthur F. Kirk Jr. says Tapia’s donation is the most impactful at the 121-year-old school that enrolls about 15,000 students, of which 3,200 take courses through the Center for Online Learning.
“It will benefit our 9,000 students in the school of business with a state-of-the-art facility to include video conferencing at our military bases,” Kirk says. “Don’s gift also sets a wonderful example for our students to know about the importance of giving back. He was an online student and never saw the campus until he graduated. He is one of the most generous people I know.”
Tapia, an Air Force veteran, says he wanted to help the students at Saint Leo, a Catholic school that ranks 13th in the country in providing higher education to about 6,000 former and current military personnel annually. The school offers continuing education for adults on military bases, at community college campuses or at office locations in seven states. Ironically, although Tapia took classes online, he developed a strong connection to the Central Florida campus when he arrived for commencement.
“The school is not only beautiful but it also provides an education for our men and women who protect us,” says Tapia. “When I got on the campus, I was hooked. The people are nice and take an interest in all students.”
Tapia’s donation is a bookend to a compelling higher education journey for a nontraditional minority student. Tapia, who is of Mexican heritage, left his childhood home in Detroit to join the Air Force. After studying to become an air traffic controller, Tapia went on to work for General Electric Company and Internationally Telephone Telegrams in Phoenix. He began to sell supplies to contractors and later built a multimillion dollar wholesale company called Essco Wholesale Electric.
His company, which employed 300 people in 14 offices/warehouses in Arizona and Southern California, distributed electrical products such as wires, cables and tools to the construction industry. Essco, which Tapia sold two years ago, was the largest Hispanic-owned business in Arizona, according to the Hispanic Business 500 list in 2008.
“I was running a multimillion dollar company with a high school diploma,” Tapia says. “I preach to my children and grandchildren the importance of education, so it was my turn.”
Unbeknownst to his family, Tapia, at age 62, began taking courses online from his Arizona home. He would arrive to work by at least 6 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. so he could devote the afternoon to his studies. “I was the boss,” he says. “Who would question me leaving at 3 in the afternoon?”
His first time on the campus was in 2005 at age 65 to attend the graduation ceremony to receive his bachelor’s degree. Two years later, he flew back to Saint Leo with his family to receive his master’s degree and give one of the school’s commencement speeches.
“I wasn’t seeking accolades from anybody. It was a personal drive for me to do something else,” says Tapia.
One of Tapia’s proudest moments was watching his 48-year-old son, Mark VanderLinde, receive his MBA from Saint Leo in May. VanderLinde earned the degree online.
“His overall GPA was 3.9. Mine was 3.48,” Tapia jokes. “He wanted to make damn sure he beat mine.”