AMHERST — Years ago, Charlie Baker established a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts in the memory of his grandfather, a man who did not have the chance to attend college himself but made sure his children did.
On Wednesday, during a whirlwind visit to UMass Amherst, the governor-elect met one of the beneficiaries, the daughter of a woman who has given up everything for her children. In an emotional exchange, Baker asked Patrice Charlot, a scholarship winner from Brockton, about her life and aspirations. And with his voice catching, he recalled his grandfather as “a very special guy.”
“The real beauty of this,” he said, “was having a chance to read these essays from so many kids like you, who are doing really wonderful things.”
Twenty University of Massachusetts undergraduates, talented students who are often from low-income backgrounds, have since received grants, which range from $1,000 to $1,500. The fund now has more than $45,000, and in recent years has awarded at least three scholarships a year at a UMass school.
The Charles D. Baker II Scholarship has gone largely unpublicized outside the campuses, even in recent years during Baker’s campaigns for governor. Baker has been quietly involved in selecting the winners, and he reads students’ application essays.
That led to Wednesday, when Charlot told Baker she is a double major in public health and sociology. She said she aspires to go abroad — perhaps South Africa — and help people overseas, after her planned graduation in May.
“I really hope you live out your dreams and change the world,” Baker said.
Charlot thanked Baker, and pausing to take stock, uttered a single word: “Wow!”
Baker wanted to capture the moment. So he pulled out his iPhone and snapped a selfie with Charlot.
Charlot said she had written her scholarship application essay about her mother, how she had given up a lot so her daughter could go to college. Originally from Haiti, her mother came to the United States as a young adult, she said. Her dream of going back to school to become a nurse “went to the backburner” after she had children.
A single mother, she had given up everything for Charlot and her two sisters.
“She’s still working like 16-hour days to this day,” Charlot said.
UMass President Robert Caret said Baker reads the application essays, and takes them to heart. Baker attended Harvard, but strongly believes in affordable public education, Caret said.
“It’s the kind of payback you’d like to see more graduates help with,” he said in a phone interview. “It may appear small, but it’s huge for the students.”
The application form for the scholarship, which is based on merit and need, describes Baker’s grandfather as a man who “despite experiencing significant hardships in his life, approached each day and each challenge with persistence, optimism, and grace.”
In a Father’s Day message on his campaign website, Baker wrote that his grandfather grew up in New York City and worked as a “bundle boy” after high school before joining the service. He spent nearly his entire career working for a men’s clothing store, Rogers Peet.
In the message, Baker recalled how his father once described his grandfather as “tough as a bar of Sheffield Steel.”
“He earned everything he has in this life the hard way, and has never complained — ever — about the hand he’s been dealt. I cannot imagine any of us growing up to be half the man he is.”
Joshua Encarnacion says he didn’t have much money for college, and had to work multiple jobs and take out hefty loans to help pay his way through UMass Dartmouth.
Coming at a time when every dollar counted, the $1,000 grant allowed him to work fewer shifts and focus more energy on his studies.
“It was more than the money; it was the time,” said the 22-year-old, who graduated this year and now works in human resources at Google. “One thousand dollars to me meant more than 100 work hours.”
Encarnacion said he will always be grateful for the scholarship, and that it inspired him to return the favor. As student body president at UMass Dartmouth, Encarnacion led the push to create a $25,000 endowment for a “Dream Scholarship,” the largest class gift in school history.
Encarnacion, who grew up in Lawrence and Springfield, said that by his senior year in college he needed several thousand dollars to cover his tuition. He applied for as many scholarships as he could, and remembered the feeling of relief when he heard he had won the Baker grant.
“It came just in time,” he recalled. “It gave me a chance to breathe.”