A Michigan couple is contributing millions to support their commitment of changing lives through education. Bob and Ellen Thompson believe that education can make a significant difference in everyone’s life. Their latest gift of $52 million is to support Thompson Working Families Scholarships. The Thompsons already have contributed $33 million to Thompson Working Families Scholarships and with this additional $52 million over 5,200 students will receive support at partnering institutions.
Their latest gift to SVSU of $6 million to support the Thompson Working Families Scholarship is the largest single gift in university history.
“We deeply appreciate the Thompsons’ profound generosity and their show of faith in students from working families,” said Donald Bachand, SVSU president. “They have provided hope and opportunity to many capable students who thought a college degree might be out of reach financially. By supporting scholarships for four years, they provide motivation and support for those students to complete degrees and pursue meaningful careers.”
The Robert and Ellen Thompson Scholarship for Working Families was introduced at SVSU in 2016 and has since helped hundreds of students achieve their academic and career goals. The latest contribution will help even more students realize their desire to complete a college degree.
“The Working Families Scholarship was designed to help offset the funding gap that exists for many families. With the limits of federal and state support and the increase in costs, the gap has widened, especially for middle income families,” said Andy Bethune, executive director of the SVSU Foundation.
“We currently have 297 students who are receiving the Thompson Scholarship. That number will grow to a cohort of more than 450 students over the next few years.”
The funds will be put to use immediately, rather than placed into an endowment.
“The philanthropy of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson is a great example to others. It demonstrates their belief in our mission and will likely raise awareness of SVSU,” said Bethune. “The impact is significant as 100% of the funds go directly to student scholarships. This is especially important as we navigate these uncertain times.”
The Thompsons developed this scholarship because they understand the grit and determination of working-class families. In 1959, they entered the asphalt paving business with the $3,500 they had in savings and lived solely off Ellen’s teaching salary for a few years while they got their business off the ground. Their hard work flourished into two successful, multimillion-dollar businesses and countless accolades for their achievements. As their success grew, so did their philanthropy— both to their employees and promising students.
Ellen Thompson has said it was the couple's relationship with employees at their asphalt company that spurred them into creating scholarship programs. “I see how long and hard some people work, and the dreams they have for their children,” said Ellen Thompson. “We’ve been fortunate and want to help students realize those dreams.”
Emily Wahl, a Thompson Scholar who graduated from SVSU in December 2020, experienced the profound impact of this generosity firsthand.
“I was excited because in high school all the other scholarships I looked at were $500 or $1,000, but this scholarship was up to $5,000 per year. When I heard that, I was speechless,” said Wahl.
SVSU matches dollar for dollar the amount that is awarded to a Thompson scholar; the typical four-year award total for a scholar is $40,000.
The Thompson Working Families Scholarship made it possible for Wahl to attend SVSU and pursue her dream career in accounting. She worked multiple jobs while enrolled and earned a bachelor’s degree in professional accountancy in just three and a half years. She was offered a full-time position before she had even graduated.
Wahl is grateful for her success and knows it was made possible because of the financial support of the Thompson family.
“Usually when you get these larger scholarships, it’s from a big corporation, but the Thompson Scholarship is a private scholarship that is donated by a family,” Wahl said. “If I could say anything to the Thompson family, it would be, ‘Thank you so much! You don’t know how much this has impacted me with my education and career.’”
A native of Bad Axe, Michigan, Wahl worked as the business manager of The Valley Vanguard, SVSU’s student newspaper, and as a student ambassador in the SVSU Admissions office. She is currently employed with the accounting firm Nietzke & Faupel, P.C. “This scholarship helped me immensely,” she said. “By working during my college years and thanks to the scholarships I received, I haven’t had to take out a loan at all, and I’m really thankful for that opportunity.”
The generosity and giving spirit of the Thompson family also changed the life of current SVSU student CarLee Stimpfel. In high school, the Cass City native considered several other universities, but they were far too expensive for his family to afford. When he found out about the Thompson Scholarship at SVSU, he referred to this as the “game changer” that made his dreams a reality.
“Being able to have that opportunity drastically changed college for me and many others, and the decision to go to college,” said Stimpfel. “When I got that phone call, my mom was right there with me and we were both pretty emotional about it. It was a big moment and definitely life-changing.”
Receiving this scholarship allowed him to focus on his education and career goals, igniting his passion and enthusiasm for his career path in geography. This generous gift has instilled a sense of gratitude in Stimpfel and many other SVSU Thompson Scholars, because these students understand the impact of the financial support they receive.
“This has been one of the biggest blessings I could ever have,” Stimpfel said.
The Thompson family’s dedication to helping working families already has changed the lives of hundreds of SVSU students and alumni, and this additional gift will make college a possibility for many more students who often feel that their education is out of reach financially.
Bob Thompson has a message for students: "You can do things to help others, one-on-one, and make it happen. You're almost obligated by me to do that. Do what you can and someday I hope you'll look back and say, 'This changed my life.'"
The Thompsons’ generosity has changed the lives of hundreds of SVSU students to date, and their latest gift will change the lives of many more.
To learn more about the Thompson scholarships available at SVSU, please visit https://www.svsu.edu/go/scholarships/thompsonscholarship/