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  • Ken Ilgunas

The “Dare Mighty Things” Scholarship

I am familiar with rejection. I’ve been rejected by colleges (13), potential employers (15+), internships (50+) and women (lost count long ago).

Yes, I’ve been rejected a lot. But, like anyone who’s consistently failed, I’ve developed ways to deal with it.

First, you remind yourself about all the great people who failed early on in life, but who, in the end—with tireless perseverance and unflinching resolve—proved their naysayers wrong. Then you—from the confinement of your home—cast invectives, declare revenge, violently bang your head against a mattress, and aspire to “show” your rejecter just how wrong he was. And then, finally, you get really, really drunk. Works every time.

For some reason, the sting of a rejected scholarship application tends to linger. Perhaps it’s because there are always other jobs, internships and girls out there in that great big sea. But when it comes to getting money for college, you’re shit out of luck if you can’t get a scholarship.

I don’t know how many of my scholarship applications have been rejected. Perhaps, someday, a team of scientists will create an equation that could help me make a reasonably close estimate. But for now, let’s just says it’s “a lot.”

When I applied to scholarships in high school, I didn’t have much going for me. The problem was multifold:

1.) I had a pedestrian high school academic record: I was ranked (a very mediocre) 77th in my high school class of 200, I passed my final physics exam by only one point, and I didn’t impress any of my teachers.

2.) I had no interests or passions outside of girls, hockey, football, the Buffalo Sabres and my irrational desire to drive to Alaska. I never volunteered, took part in clubs, or held student office. I was, yes, a slacker. And no matter the amount of gloss I brushed onto my applications, I could never fool the people making the decisions.

3.) I was never right for a scholarship. I never fit the requirements. I didn’t have the grades, the bullshit clubs, or the sports accolades. I had something, but nothing that a scholarship committee could ever see.

My scholarship rejection streak finally ended during the first of my two senior years of college when I won a $1,000 award from the University at Buffalo’s history department. But by then, my debt had accumulated to such unfathomable proportions that this little bit of money was too little, too late; it felt like I was approaching a burning building with a glass of water.

Before I came to Duke, I decided to give scholarships one more chance. Besides, I thought, I have a whole bunch of interesting life experiences to draw from and a strong undergraduate record to brag about. I even—I’m ashamed to say—told scholarship committees about my intention to live in the van to hopefully guilt them into giving me their money. Sure enough, all my applications were rejected. By this time, though, I’d known what to expect. It was up to me to fund my education.

So here’s what I want to do. I want to create a scholarship for someone like me; for someone whose potential cannot be measured by a GPA, SAT or GRE score; for someone who’s gotten no help from schools and scholarship committees because each other’s goals never aligned; and for someone who is passionate, not just about succeeding—whatever that means—but living.

The scholarship I’ve made will be for college students (juniors and seniors) on the verge of graduating. Instead of being kicked into career-world or pushed back into a graduate school, I want to encourage students to forget about planning for the future and to focus on living the present. Plus, I think a traveler gets the most out her journey–and the people she meets get the most out of her–when she sets off with a degree’s worth of eduction in her head.


This past June I wrote a post titled “Belated Manifesto” in which I sent money back to parents and friends because I thought their gifts interfered with my goal to graduate “debt-free.” For good reason, I got some less-than-positive feedback from the readers of this blog. And while my family was good-natured about the gesture, they refused to take the money.

So now I have $910.90 that isn’t mine, that interferes with my goal, and that—most oddly—I can’t get rid of. I decided I’d give it to a charity, but then I thought: why not create a “charity” of my own?

I’m pleased to announce that I will be giving away the first ever “Dare Mighty Things” Scholarship this winter, in honor of one of my favorite quotes (that was penned by the hand of Teddy Roosevelt):

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Indeed, Teddy, indeed! My scholarship is designed to support students who wish to embark on an adventure of their own creation. I believe that for people to realize their fullest potential, it’s necessary to have some combination of focused academic study and broad worldly experiences. Each type of learning complements the other. On our journey, we see what’s wrong with the world, and in the academy, we acquire the tools to fix it.

While $900 will do nothing, it’s a start, and I’m hoping I can raise another $100 from the good readers of this blog to round it up to a nice $1,000. If we don’t raise that much, I’ll pay the rest on my own, and if—by chance—we exceed that goal, I’ll just put it toward next year’s scholarship. And I don’t think I have to say this but: know that none of this money will enter my pocket.

Three more things:

1.) I’ve named my best friend, fellow student debtor, and charity expert, Josh Pruyn, the Executive Vice President of the Dare Mighty Things Scholarship Foundation. He’ll help me sift through applications. I intend to advertise this on scholarship websites, so hopefully we’ll get a good pile of applications.

2.) For more info about our mission and requirements, you can click this link, or just click on the tab below the photo of me standing next to the van titled “Scholarship.”

3.) The winner will have his/her application essay posted on this blog; and hopefully we can get pictures/stories/etc. from their journey.


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