Texas A&M University-Commerce alumni Sandra Lyday Fernandes and Gary Fernandes of Dallas and Honey Grove, Texas, made Lion history this month as the university’s first donors with a cumulative lifetime giving amount over $1 million.
The couple's most recent gift, the Lyday Fernandes Scholars, is a $1 million endowment that includes a student scholarship fund for first-generation students from rural Northeast Texas. The gift marks the first $1 million commitment from a living donor that is not entirely posthumous.
The scholarship program will award $5,000 per year for up to four years. Students can apply for the scholarship beginning in January 2022 for the 2022-2023 academic year.
“We’ve always felt that helping young people achieve an education is one of the most important things we could do with our resources,” Gary said. “We wanted to start this endowment during our lives so we can see the fruits of our labor, but we also want our efforts to last beyond our lifetime.”
For scholarship eligibility, students must be the first in their immediate family to attend college. According to Gary, many Northeast Texas students don’t have a family legacy of education and need extra incentive and support.
“The average family income in our area is among the lowest in Texas, so the need is there. These kids want to receive an education, but many of them don’t have the resources,” Gary said.
He added: “A&M-Commerce has always had an outstanding reputation for serving the needs of the local area, and we’ve always believed in the ability of the university to take care of the students we send there.”
Gary and Sandra were both first-generation college students, so they empathize with the challenges of achieving a college degree without an established family tradition of higher education. Gary arrived at A&M-Commerce (then known as East Texas State University) in 1961 from Ames, Iowa, and Sandra arrived in 1960 from nearby Honey Grove, Texas.
To pay for college, Gary and Sandra received outside support through scholarships and financial aid, and they both worked part-time jobs. Sandra worked at the university library while Gary worked at a dry goods store in downtown Commerce.
Sandra graduated from East Texas State University in 1963. Following her college graduation, she launched her career as a children’s caseworker, a teacher, and finally a committed wife and mother. Meanwhile, Gary received his bachelor’s degree from Baylor University in 1964. He then served in the U.S. Army before working as a systems engineer trainee for Ross Perot's Dallas-based Electronic Data Systems (EDS). He retired from EDS as vice-chairman in 1999.
Over the years, the couple has supported numerous initiatives at A&M-Commerce. The university's first recorded gift from Gary and Sandra was in 1992, almost 30 years ago. They have funded a scholarship program for the past 20 years to benefit members of the Boys and Girls Club of Dallas and assist Honey Grove High School graduates with tuition at A&M-Commerce. They have also generously supported KETR, the FM radio station located on the A&M-Commerce campus.
Additionally, Mr. and Mrs. Fernandes endowed a professorship for the College of Business which sponsors a teaching position in business analytics. Earlier this year, the couple established the Marilie and Ron Hunter Memorial Scholarship endowment to honor a late classmate and to support College of Business accounting students.
They also helped launch the university’s Equine Studies program and Lyday Gardens, the beautiful living and learning research space next to Heritage House, the president's home. In February 2020, just before the pandemic, they made an additional commitment to Lyday Gardens. The rededication of this outdoor space will take place in 2022.
In 1992, Mr. Fernandes received the Distinguished Alumni Award which recognizes “extraordinary distinction in his or her chosen profession, life's work, or worthy endeavor.”
“When you consider their 30-year philanthropic history, Mr. and Mrs. Fernandes have an unparalleled legacy of generosity at A&M-Commerce. They have created and supported numerous programs and initiatives, and the entire Lion community has changed for the better. It has been an honor to help them realize their goals which will make such a meaningful difference for future Lions,” said Amber Countis, interim vice-president for philanthropy and engagement.
Mr. and Mrs. Fernandes want to foster and grow the culture of giving at A&M-Commerce, and they hope their recent endowment encourages other alumni to follow suit.
“If I had any message to give to my fellow alumni, it would be ‘Do it now,’” Gary said. “And I would add, ‘Don’t wait.’ There’s never going to be a better time to make a difference for the institution. Don’t wait to make your gift until after you’re gone. Find an area of need that you’re interested in and then work with the school to make it happen,” he said.
Dr. Mark Rudin, president of A&M-Commerce, expressed gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Fernandes.
“From scholarships to academic programs and beyond, Gary and Sandra have made a huge impact on A&M-Commerce and our students over the past three decades. Their generosity inspires all of us to serve more selflessly and give more generously. We are beyond grateful.”
To learn more about how you can create your own legacy at A&M-Commerce, please contact the Philanthropy and Engagement Division at 903.468.8187 or [email protected].