TRANSFORMATIONAL IMPACT: Madison (Al) and Lila Self believed investing in students and education was the key to making a difference in the world. The effects of their decades-long generosity are difficult to quantify — more than 500 Jayhawks have benefited from life-changing opportunities, and KU programs have advanced in immeasurable ways.

 

A SELFless legacy

Madison and Lila Self’s gifts keep giving 


KU doctoral student Max Fairlamb is fascinated by proteins. Like tiny machines in our cells, each protein uses a unique mechanism to do its job. “The more we learn about them, the more adept we can become at designing synthetic proteins to fight diseases, generate energy or break down chemical waste,” Fairlamb said. He recently designed and built a specialized fluorescent microscope allowing him to record video of proteins workaing together to repair DNA.

Fairlamb said the project was only possible because he is part of the Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellowship, which provides him funding to conduct research. Fairlamb, who is studying biochemistry and molecular biology, also is grateful for the fellowship’s unique training. 

“The Fellow Development Program fills in the training gaps left by graduate school with in-person workshops and personalized training with leading experts, so students are well prepared for real-life challenges,” Fairlamb said. “The lessons have helped me in almost every aspect of my life.” 

This opportunity and many like it are thanks to the generosity of Madison (Al) and Lila Self, two incredible Jayhawks. After decades of success in the engineering field, the Selfs chose to invest their considerable wealth in their alma mater. From the couple’s first gift in 1978 to a final estate gift following their deaths in 2013, they became KU’s largest individual donors with lifetime giving of $106 million. 

The Selfs launched the Self Graduate Fellowship in 1989 because they believed developing and investing in young leaders was vital for a successful future. It is a merit-based program made up of an interdisciplinary group of doctoral students that come from 21 different eligible academic fields. To date, 165 doctoral students have completed the four-year fellowship. Each of the 41 current participants receive annual support of $32,000 through a graduate research assistantship. Additionally, the fellowship covers tuition, fees and the employer’s share of student health insurance costs. The total value of the fellowship exceeds $180,000. 

Vice Provost for Graduate Studies Jennifer Roberts credits the Selfs for this unique approach. “The leadership curriculum developed by the Selfs envisioned doctoral training that emphasized disciplinary training combined with the soft skills of leadership, interpersonal effectiveness, communication and collaboration,” she said.

 

The Selfs were inspired by the success of the graduate program and worked with the university to create a similar experience for undergraduates in 2007. When freshman Beatriz Toro was deciding where to attend college for chemical engineering, KU stood out because of this unique opportunity. The Self Engineering Leadership Fellows (SELF) program provides a cohort of likeminded students and the ability to graduate with little to no student debt. 
“The idea of a program that would help me develop my leadership skills in a professional setting really interested me,” Toro said. “I realized this program would give me the tools I needed to prepare myself for a professional engineering career and help me develop my passion for leadership.” 

Each SELF Fellow is eligible for more than $30,000 in scholarships and grants. Through a combination of classroom and hands-on learning, all 130 fellows develop their leadership skills through special courses and visits to Fortune 500 companies. Upon graduation, fellows have a 100% employment rate and join an international network of more than 200 alumni. Sabrea Platz, a fellow and senior majoring in mechanical engineering, has taken nothing for granted. 

“My favorite aspect of the program has been the time I have spent with my cohort,” Platz said. “I have made close and lasting friendships, and our responsibilities to the fellowship have brought us even closer. We have had the opportunity to relax and explore together during our free time on our ‘SELF on the Road’ trip to Boston, but also faced the challenges and rigors associated with planning and executing events. I know the connections I have made in the SELF Program will be lasting.”

An additional opportunity envisioned by the Selfs and created through their estate was a program to support Jayhawk undergraduates transitioning to a KU graduate degree. The Madison and Lila Self Memorial Scholarship was set up in 2018 to provide a $10,000 scholarship award and a development program for 10 to 20 recipients each year.

The lasting impact of the Selfs’ generosity is deeply felt by the students their funds support. “Throughout college, knowing I was financially supported, I was able to focus on my studies and take the path that was best for my future without worrying about financial strain,” Platz said. 

Al and Lila Self believed in the transformative power of a KU education. That legacy will continue through gifts that keep on giving. “The support provided by the Selfs has changed my life and the lives of so many others,” Fairlamb said. “Stories of their charm and commitment to student empowerment are still being shared by students. What the Selfs have built here at KU is extraordinary, and I count myself lucky to be part of such an incredible program.”

R. Tyler Habiger