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Golden opportunity

Brazeal Scholars study abroad, conduct research, befriend their benefactors

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  • Story by Josh Murray
  • Photos by Nic Benner
  • Published: Feb. 15, 2012
Brazeal Scholars

Brazeal Scholars Catherine Newhouse, Jennifer Wesley, Brian Gaffigan and Nick Cobblah visit with Jim and Cathy Brazeal over dinner at Bleu in downtown Columbia.

When Jim and Cathy Brazeal met with MU development officer Dale Wright in 2003, they had a goal in mind: to assist Mizzou in attracting high-achieving students while also promoting diversity.

By the summer of 2004, the Brazeals, Wright and Stu Palonsky, then the director of the Honors College, had put in place the Brazeal Honors College Endowed Diversity Scholarship. The scholarship continued to grow following a meeting with MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton in 2005.

“We wanted to bring in the cream-of-the-crop, top-flight academic prospects from historically underrepresented groups,” says Jim Brazeal, BA ’67 MBA ’69.

Their vision has materialized.

Through the scholarship, double-major Nick Cobblah has conducted research in both of his areas of interest: English and physics. The scholarship has allowed freshman Brian Gaffigan to work on a research project that uses lasers to find cancer cells. It paved the way for Catherine Newhouse to spend last summer in Rwanda, where she conducted research and wrote an article for Christianity Today. It also has given Jennifer Wesley an opportunity to work as a neuroscience research assistant.

No ordinary scholarship

The Brazeals had been giving to the University of Missouri prior to 2003 but wanted to focus on bringing in high-achieving minority students, particularly African-American students, who otherwise might not have chosen Mizzou. For the Brazeals to reach their goal, the scholarship needed to offer something extra.

“We wanted something that would be as good as anything the University of Missouri had,” Jim Brazeal says. “And we wanted it to be competitive with any full-ride scholarship out there.”

So, in addition to covering tuition, room, board and books, the Brazeal Scholarship provides entrance into the Discovery Fellows research program and covers the cost of a study abroad program. The addition of those opportunities puts the scholarship on an elite level.


The scholarship has succeeded in attracting the high-achieving minority students who have chosen Mizzou over Carnegie-Mellon, Northwestern, Rice and Washington University in St. Louis, among others elite universities.

“Because the Brazeal Scholarship offers funding for research and study abroad as well as tuition, it gives students the chance to experience learning in a variety of ways,” says Nancy West, who took over as director of the Honors College in September. “That is an opportunity that is not available with other scholarships.”

Pacemakers, cancer cells and brain tissue

Discovery Fellows, an Honors College research program for freshmen and sophomores, gives students the chance to conduct research as soon as they step on campus, an opportunity from which the Brazeal Scholars have benefited.

Cobblah is the only undergraduate working on a research project with Paul Miceli, a professor in MU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. In the lab, scientists are examining growth of thin films that are used in everything from pacemakers to vending machine controls.

“If we can gain a better understanding of the way in which these thin films grow, it can improve how they are utilized by those applications,” says Cobblah, who will graduate in May and has been accepted into the doctoral program in English at Northwestern University in Chicago. He embarked on a research project in English at MU before moving into physics research.

While Cobblah is preparing for graduation and graduate school, Brian Gaffigan is in his first year at Mizzou. The newest Brazeal recipient, Gaffigan is working in the lab of engineering professor John Viator on a project that uses lasers to detect cancer cells.

“We are trying to discover those cancer cells before they reach other parts of the body, capture them, study them and see how they work,” says Gaffigan, a native of St. Louis. “It is an important part of cancer research and it is really cutting edge.”

Wesley, a sophomore at Mizzou, is working with Zezong Gu of the MU School of Medicine. Together they are dissecting and studying the brains of mice to identify areas that have suffered traumatic brain injuries or strokes.

“This information is important because one of the main projects is identifying the effectiveness of certain compounds in protecting brain tissue from injury or helping it to re-grow,” says Wesley, who is also tracking fluid samples that can be used in numerous types of experiments that look at protein levels in the spine and brain — an undertaking appropriate for someone interested in a career in neurosurgery.

Learning without borders

Newhouse's work as a Discovery Fellow included research in journalism and peace studies. Last summer her research took her overseas.

“I definitely wanted to study abroad,” says Newhouse, who is majoring in magazine journalism, international studies and religious studies. “When I got the scholarship, I felt like that really empowered me, and I realized I could go somewhere.”

Newhouse spent four weeks in Rwanda, where she worked on research projects while also putting her journalism skills to work. She heard from guest lecturers from around the country, visited genocide memorial sites and used her research in her reporting.

“I was in a country that is incredibly beautiful,” Newhouse says. “It’s kind of eerie and dissonant because the past seems so different than the present. But in another sense it is inspiring because Rwanda has come so far as a country.”

Newhouse’s research project centered on Pentecostal churches in Rwanda, and an article she wrote about her work was published in Christianity Today. She also wrote articles about Rwanda for UrbanFaith.

“Being able to do our own research and feel that we are contributing to something and responding to what we learned about the genocide was very useful,” Newhouse says.

Other Brazeal Scholars plan to follow in her footsteps and study abroad. Wesley is looking into studying in the United Kingdom, while Gaffigan is interested in traveling to China or Spain.

“The chance to study abroad is very appealing,” Gaffigan says. “I’m not sure when and I’m not sure where, but I am definitely interested in doing that.”

From strangers to dinner companions

Through their research and travels, the Brazeal Scholars are collecting memories and stories to tell. A few times each year, they get to share those stories with the Brazeals.

It's another feature that sets this scholarship apart form others: the interaction between the students and the donors. At least once a semester, the Brazeals visit Columbia for dinner with the scholars. 

“That is a reward for us,” Jim Brazeal says. “What a great experience it is to have these people seated around the table. Without that, it would be an arm's-length relationship and wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them or to us.”

While it is a chance for the Brazeals to catch up with the students, those gatherings also allow the students the opportunity to better know the Brazeals.

“It shows them that we aren’t just someone paying for their tuition that doesn’t think about them,” Cathy Brazeal says. “We care about what is going on in their lives.”

“When you first meet them it’s like, ‘Here are the strangers who decided they wanted to support all the crazy things I want to do in my life,’” Newhouse says of the Brazeals. “It’s meaningful to be able to meet them, get to know them and thank them for what they are doing.”

While Jim Brazeal refers to himself and his wife as “just average people,” the scholars have a different opinion.

“They are incredibly kind people,” says Cobblah, who describes the relationship as a family atmosphere.

In addition to meeting for dinner, the scholars and Brazeals regularly exchange letters, staying updated on what is going on in their lives.

The students have exceeded the expectations of the Brazeals: to bring the best of the best to MU. Through a scholarship that is like no other, the Brazeal Scholars are proving those expectations are attainable.

“This is all about the students,” Jim Brazeal says. “That is how this whole program should be judged. If we’ve achieved what we set out to do, people will have a little richer life or an experience that they might not otherwise have had.”

A richer experience is what the Brazeal Scholars are getting because of the generosity of “average people” who are helping Mizzou attract students who are far from average.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012