As a child, Shirley Paden-Bernstein '73 loved visiting her grandmother in the South and watching her knit on the back porch. "I remember the great love my grandma had for me. And it was magic to see what she created with her needles," she says.
Paden-Bernstein's life adventures began in a low-income family of eight living in inner-city Philadelphia. Today, after a long career in the business world, Paden-Bernstein carries on the family tradition of needle art as a designer of custom handknit clothing. She owns Shirley Paden Custom Knits and is an internationally recognized teacher, author, mentor, and philanthropist. She says the trajectory of her life changed forever when she arrived on Ohio Wesleyan's campus.
"Money can't buy what Ohio Wesleyan gave me," she says.
Today, Paden-Bernstein is determined to change the trajectory for other first-generation college students. In August, President Matt vandenBerg announced Paden-Bernstein's fiveyear pledge of $1 million to OWU to support first-generation student scholarships, the OWU Bridge Program, and other university initiatives that enhance the student experience.
"I'm like the poster girl for first-generation students, and I'm sure there are others," Paden-Bernstein says. "As my OWU experience relates to first-gen students, when I first came to campus, there was the Student Union on Black Awareness, and they assigned an existing student to incoming students. It was an additional arm that was out there for us. They were guiding us in preparing for midterms, but it also was having an ear you could go to. I see some of this echoed in the efforts to welcome first-generation college students and make them feel they are part of the university. I think the entire Summer Bridge program is just wonderful."
Her dedication to first-generation college students is critical at OWU, where one of every five students is the first in their family to attend college. Her gift will support an initial group of five first-generation college students by closing the tuition gap after they receive merit scholarships and need-based aid. The scholarships also will provide an annual stipend for students to use for unanticipated costs such as medical expenses or emergency trips home.
Paden-Bernstein's commitment also will support the Ohio Wesleyan Bridge Program, a three-week, credit-bearing residential program designed to equip first-year students with the skills they need to thrive at OWU. The program is open to all incoming first-year students, focusing on first-generation students, low-income students, students of color, and/or LGBTQIA+ students. The Bridge Program provides students with a group of friends before classes even begin and gives them an early, insider glimpse into the resources they need to use at OWU and what life is like on campus.
Paden-Bernstein is confident in OWU's first-generation college student initiatives. "I am very proud of Ohio Wesleyan for being on the cutting edge," she says. "They were on the cutting edge when they accepted us—the whole set-up with SUBA, setting up work-study for us, and pulling us into travel programs."
She notes OWU's commitment to first-generation student success will make an impact on "everyone in the orbit of that first-generation student." She adds, "And it's good for society. The more pillars of light we put into the community, the brighter everyone's future will be.
"You see your family, in my case, my parents, working so hard to try and do all they can. There were eight of us, and you honor that. My whole life, I want to honor that. Even now. I want to make them proud. It's not a burden; it's just a responsibility you have. That is a thread that runs through being a first-generation student."
Paden-Bernstein is honored and grateful to be part of the first-generation movement. "Someone stepped up and did what I'm doing so that I could have this Ohio Wesleyan education," she says. "But now the torch has been passed, and it's our turn to give back. It's time to be grateful. And I am. I am eternally grateful. Sweetly and strong, very much a loyal heart here," she says, referencing OWU's alma mater.