Edison High School has a tradition of being a largely-immigrant school. When it first opened in 1922, most of the school's students came from Poland, Italy and the Ukraine. Now, Edison's diverse population includes students from Somalia and other East African countries, Latino and Hmong students, and some northeast kids from the neighborhood.
When Bill Chorske went to Edison in the 1950s, he was a northeast kid from an immigrant family. Chorske graduated near the top of his class, and was an all-city football player. Both Harvard and Dartmouth tried to recruit him, but Chorske didn't know what to do.
"I had nobody to turn to, to give me any guidance," said Chorske. "My dad is a Polish immigrant, didn't finish high school, my mom didn't finish high school, and actually I was the first person in my family to even think about going on to college."
Chorske ended up going to the University of Minnesota, and said he always wondered what would have happened if someone had nudged him to go to an Ivy League college. He got a degree in electrical engineering, worked for Hewlett Packard, and finally made it to Harvard, where he got his MBA. Chorske then worked for a high-tech company on the east coast, and spent ten years at Medtronic, first as the chief financial officer and then president of Medtronic Europe.
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"Every time I go back and I sit and talk to these kids, I am energized."
After Chorske retired, he and his wife started the William and Gayle Chorske Family Foundation, which awards the Edison scholarships. Chorske returns to Edison each spring to interview about a dozen finalists.
"I want to sit across the table from this person and talk to them," Chorske said. "Every time I go back and I sit and talk to these kids, I am energized."
The Chorske scholars, as he calls them, must be top students academically. But beyond that, Chorske looks for well-rounded students who excel in other areas, whether it's athletics, music, language or theatre. He encourages them to apply to the nation's top colleges, and he wants them to dream big.
This year's recipients are Tenzin Waleag, a Tibetan student who will attend St. Olaf College, and Tressi Stigler, the first African-American recipient Chorske has selected. Stigler will attend Coe College in Iowa, where she wants to study history and English and eventually teach in an urban school. Stigler is one of seven children in her family, and said she could never have afforded a private college like Coe without the Chorske scholarship. Stigler said she was a little intimidated to be interviewed by Chorske, but he made her feel comfortable.
"When I went there, he was very nice. He's funny too, which I really liked," Stigler said. "And it was kind of easy just to talk to him, not so much about, like, this is what I'm going to do with my life, I need to impress you by telling you how great a person I am, and what a big impact I'm going to make. I was just able to go in and be myself."
While Chorske puts the finalists at ease, he does have high expectations for his scholarship recipients.
"I tell them all, I say, look, I'm interested in you because I think you have the potential to be a significant leader - you could be a doctor, or a Senator, or a CEO, or a great scientist," said Chorske. "That's kind of what I have in mind when I pick these kids."
The Chorske scholarship is $3,500 dollars a year for four years. That's not enough to cover private school tuition, but when paired with other financial aid, it can get students through college without having to take part-time jobs. That was the case for Khalid Ali, who received a Chorske scholarship in 2000. Ali is a Pakistani immigrant who went to Columbia University in New York, where he was president of the student body for four years.
"Having Bill there as a mentor I would say definitely helped out so much more," Ali said. "He was there throughout college, he would offer a lot of helpful advice, and he and his wife Gayle would come down to the city often times and take me out to dinner, and they were there for my graduation as well."
Chorske keeps in touch with all of his scholarship recipients, and he hosts a dinner for them each spring when he visits Edison. He also gives recipients a computer when they go to college, with the requirement that they send him their grades every quarter. And so far, every Chorske scholar has graduated from college.