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Classes of 1961 and 2011 Continue Partnership to Award Passionate Students

During halftime of the Lehigh-Princeton football game on September 24, members of the Classes of 1961 and 2011 presented each of the ‘611’ Challenge Award Winners with a plaque and a $1,500 prize. Award recipients were selected based on their dedication and passion to Lehigh, strong leadership abilities, service to others, and demonstrated academic excellence. From left during the presentation were Aakash Phulwani ’17, Paul Smith ’61, Ryan Spirko ’16, Emily Okrepkie ’18, Ed Watters ’61, Meghan Casey ’11, and Leah Evans ’11. Award winners unable to attend the presentation were Michelle Juarez ’16, Deanna Kocher ’17, and Nadine Elsayed ’18. (Photo by Chad Davis)

At the beginning of every school year, hundreds of brown shirt-clad students shuffle into Grace Hall for the First-Year Student Rally. In the packed gymnasium, these newly-anointed college students sit alongside the members of what will eventually become their graduating class and are welcomed to Lehigh by various members of the university community.

As part of a long-standing tradition, the entering class is “adopted” by alumni of the class that had entered Lehigh 50 years earlier. This symbolic adoption is the start of a four-year relationship where the alumni provide support and serve as mentors for the incoming members of the class that will graduate a half century after they did.

The bond formed between the Classes of 1961 and 2011 is an excellent example of a partnership that has continued to last long after the students graduated five years ago. The classes have forged a relationship built on a passion for Lehigh and its students, one of the products of which is the ‘611’ Challenge Award.

The ‘611’ Challenge Award was originally started in the fall of 2008 by donations from members of the Class of 1961 as a way to recognize outstanding members of the Class of 2011 who displayed an “extreme passion” for Lehigh and their class, while also demonstrating strong leadership abilities, service to others, and a commitment to academic excellence. The award was distributed three years in a row, with three members of the Class of 2011 being recognized each year. The ‘611’ in the Challenge Award title is a playful combination of the ’61 and ’11 class years.

Dr. Edmond Watters ’61, co-founder of the award, said the idea was sparked following the First-Year Student Rally in 2007. He said he was inspired by the students he met and wanted to recognize their tremendous accomplishments, the diversity of their studies and interests, and their commitment to academics and service.

“We enjoyed being with the members of the Class of 2011 and wanted to create some kind of incentives to encourage a passion for Lehigh,” said Paul Smith ’61, class president and award co-founder.

In January 2016, the two classes joined together once again to raise money to resurrect the ‘611’ Challenge Award to hopefully recognize current undergraduate Lehigh students annually. The award ⎯ a $1,500 prize ⎯ will be presented to two members of Lehigh’s sophomore, junior, and senior classes, respectively, and is based on academic and leadership criteria, as well as contributions and service to Lehigh.

Fostering Philanthropy

According to Chad Davis, senior director of the Lehigh Fund, the “challenge” of the Classes of 1961 and 2011 is for the award recipients to carry on a similar spirit of giving to Lehigh as they become alumni. Davis said there was an “overwhelming student response” to the ‘611’ Challenge Award, which received 64 applicants in its first year back since 2011. Lehigh faculty and staff screened the submissions, and members of the Classes of 1961 and 2011 interviewed the nominees. They ultimately selected six winners – two recipients each from the Classes of 2016, 2017, and 2018 -- who represented a diverse range of academic disciplines.

The award recipients were recognized by the Classes of 1961 and 2011 on September 24 at the Lehigh vs. Princeton home football game.

“I am honored to be a recipient of the ‘611’ scholarship  ⎯  it is an honor to be a part of the tradition of class collaboration in more ways than one,” said Emily Okrepkie ’18. “The creation of this scholarship is evidence that Lehigh pride continues long after graduation, and I look forward to continuing the tradition of displaying my Lehigh pride both now and in the future.”

The lasting influence of the ‘611’ Challenge Award is an exemplary model of the strong relationship and collaborative efforts that starts when a class is adopted at the First-Year Student Rally. The Classes of 1961 and 2011 hope to continue to give back to promising students and to inspire strong relationships between future adopter and adoptee classes.

“I think the adoption is a terrific thing,” Smith said. “It shows the Lehigh family at its best.”

Klaudia Jazwinska ’18