In 2012, Connor Donovan started working at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum to help make ends meet.
A senior in high school, Donovan took the job to help support his family during a financially trying time.
More than four years later, the Student Government Association president is returning to the Clinton Presidential Center for a very different purpose. Donovan, 22, of Little Rock, has been named the recipient of the 2017 Edward L. Whitbeck Memorial Award from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The Whitbeck Memorial Award is the single greatest distinction the university annually bestows on a graduating student and comes with a $2,000 prize. Donovan will be honored for this award during the Distinguished Alumni Awards luncheon beginning at 11:30 a.m. Friday, May 12, at the Clinton Presidential Center Great Hall in Little Rock.
After graduating from Little Rock Central High School in 2013, Donovan had already been accepted to another university. When the institution found out about his family’s financial situation, personnel notified Donovan that it would be very difficult for him to procure enough loans and financial aid for him to attend the university. He then unenrolled two weeks before the start of classes.
Several years of personal and family obstacles, including health issues, a layoff, and a bankruptcy, brought Donovan and his family to a point where, despite all of his best efforts, he thought he couldn’t afford to attend a university. However, Donovan got a last-minute second chance at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“I truly believe that education is one of the most powerful change agents we have as humans,” Donovan said. “Everyone has a beautiful story, but it doesn’t have to dictate the future. Your future is limitless. You just have to go out and get involved and be the best you can.”
While it was too late for Donovan to apply for a scholarship during his freshman year, Donovan applied and was accepted into the prestigious Donaghey Scholars Program his sophomore year, which covered the cost of his education and a semester study abroad experience in China.
“From a business perspective, we do a lot of commerce with China,” he said. “They are one of the fastest growing countries in terms of gross domestic product. I knew it would set me apart to speak their language and interact with them.”
After studying abroad, he worked with a Tulane University professor to produce three peer-reviewed publications regarding public health and tropical medicine in China.
Donovan saw it as his duty as a student leader to make positive changes for his fellow students to enhance the UA Little Rock experience. As a freshman senator for the Student Government Association, he founded the Trojan Spirit Committee to help build camaraderie through collaborative services and school spirit-related activities. This led to a competition to rewrite the lyrics for the university’s fight song, which hadn’t been changed since the 1930s.
Following a successful campaign for Student Government Association president, Donovan built a strong foundation of inclusivity on his campaign platform, “Making the Connection.” He was the force behind the first SGA retreat, where more than 70 student leaders developed solutions to challenges faced by many students.
Some of the initiatives that came from this retreat include a more inclusive homecoming court that is open to all students, regardless of gender; an open forum for students to discuss concerns regarding campus dining; and a 24-hour military appreciation walk set for fall 2017.
“The school invested a lot in my opportunities for growth, so I wanted to give back to the university that gave me so much,” he said.
His commitment to scholarship is evident in his 3.97 grade point average and the rigorous curriculum required in the Donaghey Scholars Program, as well as his academic engagement outside the classroom. He will graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration in international business with a Chinese concentration.
Building on a project through Donaghey coursework, he developed a Campus Aesthetics and Amenities Fee proposal that would enable students to have an official voice in decisions about new buildings and renovation projects on the campus. He also served on the Strategic Planning Task Force, where he helped plan the university’s goals, objectives, and strategies for the next five years.
As the team coordinator, head of marketing, and lead author of a 30-page business plan for a bone regeneration technology in the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences, Donovan helped guide his team to becoming finalists in the Arkansas Governor’s Cup business plan competition.
Donovan and a group of friends came together for the Be The Match organization to find bone marrow matches for people with leukemia. Bringing together numerous campus and community resources, they helped deliver one of the most successful swab donation drives ever conducted in Arkansas.
He played a role in establishing the Arkansas Association of Students, an organization representing Student Government Associations for public universities and community colleges in Arkansas. He is currently leading efforts to write the new organization’s constitution.
Donovan plans to use his $2,000 prize money to pay off a loan from his freshman year of college, which will allow him to graduate debt free.
In the fall, Donovan will begin a master’s program at the Clinton School of Public Service, where he has been awarded a full fellowship.
“I am a faith-based person, and I think I ended up right where I wanted to be,” Donovan said. “I have had a lot of wonderful experiences in college. There have been a lot of growth opportunities, and now I am ready to see what happens next.”