When her high school students ask for college advice, geometry teacher Karen Valko ’80 usually begins her reply with two words.
“Go away,” she’ll say.
Valko, who teaches in Yonkers, N.Y., isn’t shooing her pupils to the side. Rather, she’s offering a piece of advice that she learned firsthand as a downstate transplant at SUNY Cortland in the late 1970s. Education, Valko says, affords a vital social experience that involves stepping outside one’s comfort zone.
“I feel education is very important,” said Valko, a 32-year teaching veteran who has worked in Yonkers-area schools since her college graduation. “If I’m ever encouraging kids to go (to college), I tell them: ‘Go away for a year or at least a semester. Get away. You’ve got to give it a try. You’ve got to break the ties.’”
Valko lived out the advice during her own college experience when she journeyed to Raquette Lake for a physical education course. A self-described independent city girl, the outdoor episode that involved digging her own latrine and plunging into bone-chilling lake water was the moment of a lifetime.
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“Overall, it was just a lot of fun and the best thing I could have done,” Valko said. “It was different than anything I had ever experienced.”
Making sure today’s SUNY Cortland students enjoy those same experiences is one of the reasons she has supported the College financially. She’s offered a monetary gift to The Cortland Fund, the annual fundraising arm for SUNY Cortland’s educational programs, almost every year since her graduation, increasing it little by little over time.
Alumni like Valko keep the College’s annual giving program successful, said Jennifer Janes, the director of The Cortland Fund.
“Her story is a wonderful reminder of the notion that every little bit helps,” as The Cortland Fund strives to reach its 2011-12 fiscal year goal by Saturday, June 30, said Janes. “She’s a firm believer in public education and it shows.”
With more than 80 percent of SUNY Cortland students relying on financial assistance, The Cortland Fund’s top priority is student scholarship, Janes said. Additional gifts are funneled to support undergraduate research, cultural programming and faculty development, among other avenues.
“The financial gifts we receive are invested in Cortland’s most important resources: the students and faculty members who make this campus what it is,” Janes said. “So every gift — big or small — goes to them.”
Janes said she’s encouraged by the fact that 747 donors to the College have made an annual gift for 10 or more consecutive years. Establishing a pattern of giving among SUNY Cortland alumni — one similar to Karen Valko’s — is attainable, she believes.
Valko, who majored in physical education and minored in mathematics at SUNY Cortland, has witnessed the dwindling financial support for education firsthand.
“Especially teaching in the city schools, I’m aware of budgeting and things of that sort,” Valko said. “I felt that if there was anything that I could give back, then I would do so. If a small amount of money can help just one student continue on in college, then I’m happy to give."
The payoff, she said, is a lifelong learning experience for the student.
“Education is my passion,” she said. “So passing it on is easy for me.”