'You don't have to be Bill Gates to do this.' College donor Ruth Rovner's friendship is changing students' lives

Ruth Rovner has dinner on South Street with a group of older beneficiaries of her scholarships at Community College of Philadelphia. Most went on to earn post graduate degrees, and the students who get her scholarship also get her time, as Rovner has done more than write a check. She has kept in touch with them.

When Ruth Rovner retired from Community College of Philadelphia after 23 years of teaching, she missed the students.

Wouldn’t it be nice, she thought, if she could provide scholarship help, particularly to high achievers, often in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, who overcame obstacles.

She didn’t have vast financial resources — she drives a 17-year-old Honda Civic. That’s OK, a college gift officer assured her: “You don’t have to be Bill Gates to do this.”

So she began in 2011 awarding a few $400 scholarships each year to deserving students for things like books and supplies. While the money helped, it was what Rovner did next that really made a difference.

She offered her friendship.

“I want to support you and I want to befriend you,” Rovner, 81, of Philadelphia, tells her recipients — 17 in all over the last six years.

She takes those who accept to dinner and plays, attends their graduation award ceremonies, aids in their job searches, and maintains contact even after they graduate.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Ruth Rovner (second from left) toasts a group of older beneficiaries of her scholarships at Community College of Philadelphia, as they get together for dinner at Pietro’s on South Street. Behind her, from left are: Victoria Phraner, Dawn Joyner, Deborah Fine and Rhonda Davis.

“This is my academic mother,” said Rhonda Davis, 60, who prominently displays a picture of Rovner and herself in her dining room.

Davis studied creative writing, English, and theater at CCP after raising children and running a day care. She did so well that she got a full scholarship to Cheyney University’s honors program and is on target to get a bachelor’s in graphic design and fine arts next May.

Several recipients, including Davis, meet with Rovner regularly for dinner, as they did recently to celebrate the 60th birthday of Deborah Fine, who just got her bachelor’s in social work from West Chester University.

“I want to make a toast to these outstanding late bloomers,” Rovner said, raising a glass at Pietro’s in South Philadelphia. “They’re going to change the world!”

At the table — in addition to Davis and Fine — were:

* Dawn Joyner, 51, who enrolled at community college in her early 40s after more than half a dozen jobs, from pizza-shop server to associate manager at Wawa. She met Rovner, got her associate’s, then got a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College for her bachelor’s in sociology. She has since received her master’s there.

* Victoria Phraner, 36, of Deptford,  the youngster that evening, who went to CCP to help rebuild her life after a prison sentence and has since gotten her bachelor’s and master’s and is employed as a social worker.

They were delighted to talk about the deliberate donor, a diminutive woman with penetrating questions and an effervescent smile, who has a place in their hearts.

“You validated the importance of my journey by saying, ‘Here, let me help you with that,’ ”  Joyner told Rovner.

It’s unusual for scholarship donors to get involved in their recipients’ lives, said Patti Conroy, director of scholarship programs at CCP. The college would like to see more.

Applicants for the Rovner scholarship must have completed at least one semester at CCP, earning a 3.5 GPA or higher, and overcome obstacles. College personnel screen and narrow the pool, with Rovner reading the essays and assisting in final selection.

Camera icon Jose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer
Patti Conroy (left), CCP’s director of scholarship programs, talks about the next round of applicants for the Ruth Rovner Scholarship, with Barb McKenna, scholarships development specialist (center), and Rovner.

 

Born in Philadelphia, the daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker, Rovner attended Overbrook High, then majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania and became a schoolteacher, first in Ithaca, N.Y., and later in the Philadelphia area. After getting her master’s plus 30 credits at New York University, she got a teaching job at CCP, where she worked until she retired at 65.

She had been donating to the college’s foundation for years, then decided she wanted to get to know her beneficiaries. Some recipients were skeptical.

But, “as soon as I met her, it was like bam,” Davis said. “Her smile, everything about her was so in your face. She was really concerned about us.”

Rovner took Davis to about half a dozen plays, including Macbeth at the Arden Theatre and Hamlet at the Wilma. At each, Rovner, a freelance writer, handed Davis her press kit and later hooked her up with the Broad Street Review magazine, for which she wrote reviews.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Scholarship recipient Rhonda Davis (left), with Deborah Fine (center) and Dawn Joyner. “Her smile, everything about her was so in your face,” Davis said about Rovner.

“I got paid for my writing for the first time in my life,” Davis said. “It opened up so many more doors.”

At Cheyney, she fell in love with painting and plans to go for her master’s in fine arts.

“All of this because I took the initiative to sign up for a scholarship, and it gave me a friend for life,” she said.

Phraner also found Rovner’s friendship “quite refreshing.”

As a child, Phraner excelled in school but started getting in trouble her senior year. After getting her GED, she served seven years in federal prison on a conspiracy charge involving drugs.

She was 28 when she got out.

“At that point, I had to work really hard to reestablish my life,” she said.

She worked at a telemarketing company, then a diner, and eventually got a job at a drug and alcohol treatment center. In 2011, she enrolled in the behavioral health and human services program at CCP. There she met Rovner, who took her to her first live theater performance.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Deborah Fine (right) with Rhonda Davis (left) and Rovner (center from the back). The social gatherings with Rovner and other recipients were “something I could look forward to,” Fine said. “It just took me out of my head a little bit.”

At CCP, Phraner excelled, qualifying for a full tuition scholarship to West Chester for its social-work program. Rovner attended her senior recognition dinner.

In 2017, she earned her master’s at Rutgers, and this month, she got her license in social work. Because of her time in prison, she needed letters of recommendation, validating her transformation. Rovner wrote one.

The friendship from Rovner and the other recipients was just the support Fine needed as she began her educational quest at over 50.

“It was something I could look forward to,” she said of the social gatherings.

After high school, Fine went to Israel for a year on a work-study program, then tried East Stroudsburg University. “It wasn’t the right time,” she said.

So she became a hot dog vendor, then a hospital technician. After losing her mother and her 30-plus-year job, she enrolled at CCP and got her associate’s in behavioral health and human services, then went on for her bachelor’s, qualifying for the same scholarship to West Chester that Phraner received.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Ruth Rovner (right) took Victoria Phraner to her first live theater performance.

“I feel really proud and grateful that I could get my degree at this age,” she said. “When it’s your time, it’s your time.”

At a Bryn Mawr scholars ceremony in 2014, Joyner, who now works as a mental-health therapist, thanked Rovner publicly for helping her achieve her goals.

“Ruth is one of the few people who convinces me that it’s worth the effort to keep trying,” she said, “because there are kind people in the world.”