‘Giving Gives Grief A Purpose’

In the days after Kathryn Cullen’s death, her five adult children spent hours going through their mother’s photos and other collections, which included a trove of writings they’d never seen.

They knew Cullen was a poet, but they were unaware of the amount of written material she’d produced that never saw the light of day.

“We were absolutely floored,” said Jennifer Hildebrandt, one of Cullen’s children who received her BA from Minnesota State Mankato in 1991. “We knew that she wrote, and had published a few pieces over the years, but she was very private about it.”

Holly Dodge, the first recipient of the Kathy Cullen Gas and Groceries Scholarship.

Cullen, a single parent from Mountain Lake, worked several odd jobs at a time and relied on student loans and grants as she quietly pursued both a bachelors degree in English and a creative writing master’s degree at Minnesota State Mankato beginning at age 35. She received her BA in 1987 and her MA in 1990. Before her death in late 2018, Cullen, retired, lived in St. Peter, volunteering at the Arts Center of St. Peter and a neighborhood thrift shop, all the while writing poems and essays.

Upon the discovery of her work, Cullen’s children decided to commemorate their mother’s legacy with a scholarship for other single parents in the creative writing program at Minnesota State Mankato.

With help from University Advancement, they created the $1,500 Kathy Cullen Gas and Groceries Scholarship, designed to help students of humble means worry a bit less about money.

Kathy Cullen

Holly Dodge is the scholarship’s first recipient. Her life and situation parallels Cullen’s: Divorced, single parent, even living in Mountain Lake. She also empathized with what Cullen’s children were going through.

“I lost my mom in 2007 so I connected with the Hildebrandt children; they were dealing with the loss of their mother and wanted to honor her time at MSU, where her writing life was sparked.” Dodge said. “This really means a lot to me. More than the gift of the scholarship and the relief that it provides financially is the emotional encouragement and having them cheering me on.”

Close to Home

From 1969 to 2001, economics professor Mohamed Askalani had a reputation for kindness, shrewd and innovative acumen for his profession and an unending tolerance for students coming to his office for extra help.

Mohamed Askalani and his daughter, Mona.

“Minnesota State Mankato was not only his workplace, it was where his daughters were educated—there was no concept of campus visits or college tours in our family,” his daughter Mona Askalani said. “If Minnesota State Mankato was good enough to put food on our table, then there simply was no other choice for our college education.”

After his death in 2002, Askalani’s family established the Dr. Mohamed Askalani Memorial Economics Scholarship, which goes to a senior majoring in economics. So far, 15 of the $1,500 scholarships have been awarded.

Setting up the scholarship, Mona said, helped with grieving.

“Grief is a really tricky thing,” she said. “Being able to make a donation gives us a way to remember him. One of the things I personally enjoy is the opportunity to come back for [scholarship] dinners and be with people who actually knew my dad. I’ll cherish those forever.”

Zoya Pesnani recently received the Askalani scholarship.

As a guest speaker at one such dinner, Mona made note of the other donor families in the room.

“Giving gives grief a purpose,” she said. “Each of the families are unified in creating a legacy to our loved ones, honoring their passion for education and their connection to Minnesota State Mankato to keep their memory alive.”

Zoya Pesnani recently received the Askalani scholarship.

“As a senior, this scholarship went a long way in helping me worry less about the cost of school and let me focus more on my coursework,” she said.

Friends Forever

Heather Kaiser and Suzanne Berg were close friends at Minnesota State Mankato in the early 2000s. They competed on the University’s speech team and lived together for three years.

Suzanne Berg, whose friends from the University established a scholarship in her name.

When Berg died suddenly in 2018 at age 35, Kaiser was among a group of 11 former speech teammates who gathered at the funeral and decided to pursue the idea of collecting funds for a scholarship or endowment. Today they’ve established the Dr. Suzanne V. Loen-Berg Scholarship, with the intention of creating an endowment in honor of a friend who immersed herself in current events and social justice for the underserved in school and society.

The scholarship provides $1,500 a year for a returning student majoring or minoring in speech communication who has a demonstrated interest in social protest and rhetorical criticism; experience in social activism is a preference, as is being a member of the forensics team.

Kylee Johnson is the first recipient of the Suzanne Berg scholarship.

Recipient Kylee Johnson, a member of Minnesota State Mankato’s speech team applied for the scholarship because it resonated with her life and how she wants to live it.

“I’d never met Suzanne,” Johnson said, “but hearing her story and seeing all the people she touched together speaking about her life and personal contributions to the speech community I’ve loved for so many years really illustrated to me how close this activity makes us.”

Hildebrandt said it’s heartening to know her mother’s work and name is carried on through the scholarship.

“The scholarship is as close as we can come to being immortal,” she said. “We can keep sharing, keep discovering more parts of who she was and sharing them with the world.”