Distinguished Merit Scholarships open doors to experiences like no other


reading glasses resting on student research book

When Justine Lang was 12 years old, her family moved aboard a sailboat. For the next six years, they traveled to some of the most remote places in the world. She emerged from that experience with a desire to learn more about these global natural treasures – and to protect them. Lang chose UNC Wilmington to help turn that passion into a career path, pursuing a degree in environmental science and Spanish.

“The location on the coast is perfect for hands-on learning opportunities,” says Lang, who hopes someday to conduct research in the rainforests of Central and South America. “I’ve taken field trips to Fort Fisher and Carolina Beach State Park to gather data. A few weeks ago, I was just in the woods around campus to gather data for my ecology lab. There’s such a natural setting around campus that I can get these experiences without having to go too far.”

Justine Lang

Justine Lang

Research and conservation careers, however, aren’t often financially lucrative. Lang initially had concerns about reconciling her dream career with her responsibility to pay back student loans. But during her freshman year, she learned she’d been selected to receive the Charles and Marian Sidbury Distinguished Merit Scholarship in recognition of her academic accomplishments. The financial support not only enabled her to take full advantage of her UNCW years, but also has broadened her post-graduation professional options.

“I don’t have to choose a career to ensure I have enough money to survive or pay off loans. I can focus on finding a career that I would enjoy and that would also make me feel like I’m making a difference,” she says.

While many UNCW scholarships are tied to a specific college or area of study, distinguished merit scholarships are available to students of any major interest – and increasing the number of these scholarships is a key priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW. To date, 15 UNCW students have received four scholarships supported by the Sidbury, Chancellor’s, Bess Smith, and Jean and Eric Rosenberg endowments. Hannah Gage, a former chair of the UNCW board of trustees and the first woman to be elected chair of the UNC board of governors, recently added a fifth to the list. She and her husband, Bill, made a $1 million gift to establish the Stedman English Gage Distinguished Merit Scholarship in honor of their late son.

“In my many years of experience working on behalf of higher education in North Carolina, I’ve seen how important financial aid can be for a person just starting their career or transitioning to a new one,” Hannah Gage says. “We’re so pleased to be able to support higher education in general – and UNCW in particular – in this way.”

Beyond their impact on individual recipients, distinguished merit scholarships are assets that can fuel UNCW’s rise in academic rigor and renown. This family of named scholarship funds enable UNCW to compete for standout students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some peer institutions can provide merit scholarships to nearly 40 percent of their incoming first-year students; UNCW currently offers similar support to a fraction of that number.

“The importance of merit scholarships cannot be overstated,” said James J. Winebrake, UNCW’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “These scholarships allow us to attract and retain incredibly gifted students with a diverse array of backgrounds and interests. In turn, the talents that these students bring to UNCW lift the entire community to greater heights.

“We are grateful for the generosity of Hannah and Bill Gage. Their gift will have a transformative impact on not only the scholarship recipients, but also our entire campus.”

Case-in-point? Instead of taking a job purely to help pay bills, Lang chose to work for the University Learning Center, where she serves as a writing consultant coaching her fellow students.

“Having a scholarship gave me the freedom have a full UNCW experience and engage with the community,” she says. “I’m working [for the University Learning Center] not because of a fear of debt but because I’m working with writing, which I love, and I’m helping other Seahawks to succeed.”

Increasing support for scholarships and applied learning opportunities is a key priority of Like No Other: The Campaign for UNCW. Learn how you can get involved or make a gift today.

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