Brenden Petersen felt terrified as he arrived at Minikahda Club one February morning. His mind raced as he waited two hours for his interview with a roomful of adults, knowing a college scholarship valued at more than $90,000 was at stake.
Nail his interview and he might receive the Chick Evans Scholarship, which provides full tuition and housing for four years at the University of Minnesota.
If he didn’t get the scholarship, well, “I didn’t exactly have a Plan B,” he admits.
One hundred years ago this month, an amateur golfer named Chick Evans won the U.S. Open Championship at Minikahda.
One hundred years later, his legacy remains alive through a scholarship bearing his name.
The Evans Scholarship rewards high school seniors based on four criteria: extensive experience as a golf caddie, academic success, community leadership and financial need.
The financial commitment is life-changing. Some of the candidates come from tough backgrounds. All need a financial hand.
Petersen, a White Bear Lake graduate, had his uncle prepare him for his final interview by grilling him in mock interviews.
“I was practicing over and over because I didn’t want to mess it up knowing it does determine my future,” Petersen said. “I was nervous after that [mock interview] because I’m like, I don’t know how to respond to any of these questions.”
Others faced that same anxiety. Twelve hopefuls advanced to the final interview after a lengthy process.
In 15-minute intervals, each student entered a ballroom at Minikahda and stood in front of directors and members of the Western Golf Association who had paperwork containing academic and personal information on the finalists.
After a brief introduction, WGA officials asked questions of the candidates. Most focused on academics and volunteer work. Some questions were silly, some personal.
The Star Tribune was granted access to the interviews under the condition that conversations in the room remained private.
Each interview ended with the same question: What would this scholarship mean to you? A few of the responses left audience members in tears.
Scholarship winners receive a congratulatory letter in the mail two weeks after their interview.
Petersen, who captivated the room in his interview, received his letter.
So did the other finalists, including Samantha Likar of Duluth East.
“It’s going to open so many doors for me,” Likar said.
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The Minnesota Evans Scholar House is a three-story brick structure on 5th Street SE near Dinkytown that can accommodate 60 residents. Built in 2002, the house also has a basement that includes a meeting room and living room that features a putting green, made by one of the scholars in design class.
The university is one of 14 institutions — nine in the Big Ten — with a designated house for its Evans Scholars chapter.
The Western Golf Association funds 910 scholarships at 19 schools total at an annual cost of $16.5 million, making it one of the nation’s largest privately funded scholarships.
The WGA hopes to cross the 1,000-scholarship threshold by 2020.
Jim Lange, former host of the “Dating Game” television show, was the University of Minnesota’s first Evans Scholar in the early 1950s.
The gratitude of a scholarship to a major university binds those who live in the house.
“For some people in the house, they’re the first person in their family to go to college,” said Minnesota chapter president Charlie Bulger, who also serves as national chairman.
That opportunity brings expectations. Academic success and philanthropy are fundamental tenets of the program.
The Minnesota chapter posted a 3.33 cumulative grade-point average last year. The national graduation rate for Evans Scholars is 95 percent.
At Minnesota, Evans freshmen have mandatory library night twice a week. Study rooms also are located on each floor of the house.
Upperclassmen in the house mentor younger students in their particular majors, sometimes by sharing old notes or in choosing certain classes or professors.
The fields of study listed for the incoming class include business administration, finance, civil engineering, chemical engineering, biochemistry and aerospace engineering.
“It’s a grouping of people who have the same common goals and interests and they look out for each other,” said Jenna Baker, a junior who is on the house’s leadership council.
House members also are active in charity events. The chapter takes part in blood drives and assists at programs including Feed My Starving Children, Relay for Life and Christmas with Dignity.
“It’s important because it’s our chance to give back since we’ve been given such a great opportunity,” Bulger said.
Most Evans Scholars are white males because caddies generally fit that demographic, though the WGA has initiatives nationally designed to create more diversity. Of the 51 house members at Minnesota this year, nine were women. The racial makeup included two African-Americans and five Asian-Americans.
The coed nature of the house adds a different “dynamic,” said Baker, one of the nine women.
“A lot of the girls have the mindset that they’re going to be living in a frat house,” Baker said, laughing. “There are a lot of men in this house, but they do a good job of making it a space where women can also live.”
Likar will experience that dynamic when she moves in this fall. She became a caddie after her parents heard about the Evans Scholarship.
Likar admits she knew nothing about golf at the time. She took a community education class on golf to learn the basics.
“I really had no clue going into it,” she said.
Now she loves the game, and caddying, and not just because it led to her scholarship. She hopes to study biology and pursue a medical career.
Others, like Bulger, learn about the scholarship only after they have caddied for several years.
“It’s a scholarship unlike any other that you’ll find,” said Bulger, a senior majoring in chemical engineering.
The final interview provides that uniqueness. Answering personal questions from a large group of adults can be intimidating enough, but the carrot of financial security with the scholarship adds considerable pressure to the experience.
“They say you’re in there for about 15 minutes [but] it feels like 30 seconds,” Bulger said. “Personally, I thought it was kind of fun.”
Said Baker: “It was a rush of relief [when it was over]. I didn’t remember half of it.”
WGA officials ask questions meant to put candidates at ease. Some are even funny. One finalist this year was asked to recite all 11 children in his family in order.
Petersen, who plans to study aerospace engineering, was asked about his love of robotics.
Bulger’s interview included questions about his role in a high school musical and a B-plus he had on his transcript.
“I’m like, Geez, come on. It was English!” he said, laughing.
Coincidentally, Bulger received his Evans confirmation letter in the mail the same day that he received his acceptance letter from the university.
Which one did he open first? “Evans,” he said. “I was a little more confident about the U.”
Evans Scholars enter a fraternity that counts more than 10,000 alumni. That alumni base nationally has donated $11 million to the program last season and has given $104 million lifetime, according to Ede Rice, WGA director who oversees the Minnesota chapter.
That network comes in handy once Evans Scholars graduate and begin their job search. Those who go through the program consider themselves Evans Scholars for life, a bond that lasts long after they leave school.
A new class joins that fellowship this fall. At the end of final interviews in February, WGA members voted on the candidates, one after another. None were turned down.
Jeff Harrison, the WGA’s senior vice president of education, shared a final thought with those present before closing the meeting.
“Walk out of here feeling good,” he said, “because you changed 12 lives today.”