Keegan Stallings, and his wife, Viktoria Stallings, stand along a stretch of Town Branch Creek, where they carry out much of their research while pursuing freshwater sciences degrees at Northeastern State University. Keegan Stallings was awarded the Save the Illinois River Freshwater Sciences Scholarship for the 2023 spring semester.
STIR Awards Inaugural Scholarship, Plans for Future Funding
By D.E. Smoot
TAHLEQUAH — One student expected to be among the first graduates of Northeastern State University’s Freshwater Science degree program will have an extra $1,500 for books, tuition and necessities this semester thanks to a new scholarship funded by Save the Illinois River.
The Tahlequah-based citizen coalition of clean-water advocates funded the scholarship with hopes of attracting the next generation of “water warriors.” STIR kicked off a fundraising campaign this past year for an endowment from which future scholarships would be awarded.
STIR President Denise Deason-Toyne said the intent of the scholarship is “to promote interest among young people in NSU’s freshwater studies program and conservation.” The program was developed for students working toward river-related careers.
“Both will be critical for the future of the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller,” Deason-Toyne said. “This is a new program at NSU, and we would like to see it grow and flourish.”
Lizz Waring, an assistant professor of biology, said NSU’s fledgling freshwater science program blends “together biology and chemistry” and establishes an “environmental pathway” for students. Waring, who earned her doctorate in biology at Texas Tech, said most students enrolled in the freshwater science program at NSU “share a passion for rivers and the need to protect them.”
“Like everyone with STIR, they just feel really strongly about protecting them,” Waring said. “Students I have also care about the wildlife found in those streams and rivers.”
Waring said that is particularly true for Keegan Stallings, recipient of STIR’s inaugural Freshwater Sciences Studies Scholarship. She said the NSU junior “really cares about the waterways of northeastern Oklahoma.”
Stallings, a Class of 2020 graduate of Sallisaw High School, said the STIR scholarship is especially meaningful. He said the additional funds will lift “a large financial burden off my back,” providing more time to “focus on what matters to me most: my academics, freshwater research and my family.”
“My fondest early memories involve playing in the creek, and I am honored to be able to continue that tradition through my research activities,” Stallings wrote in a letter to STIR, expressing his gratitude for the scholarship. “I would like to personally thank the Save the Illinois River foundation for establishing this scholarship and making it possible for me to be able to follow my passion for learning about the Illinois River Watershed and also how to better protect it for generations to come.”
Stallings was excited to learn about STIR’s plans to establish an endowment that fund future scholarships. He and his wife, Viktoria Stallings, a STIR scholarship applicant, said they believe the potential for future awards would attract other students to NSU and its freshwater sciences program.
The Stallings said they expect the STIR scholarship and a new River Studies and Leadership Certificate program adopted by NSU in partnership with the River Management Society to bolster interest in the freshwater sciences program. The combination of those programs, they said, will prove beneficial not only for students interested in river-based careers but those interested in other academic areas of study.
Waring said Stallings was selected by a committee for the scholarship based on academic achievement and financial need.
“I definitely think having the scholarships available is a good thing,” Waring said about the prospect of an endowment for future awards. “It would be a fantastic recruitment and retention tool for the freshwater sciences program.”
Deason-Toyne said STIR board members are considering ways other than the scholarship to bolster interest in protecting and preserving the Illinois River, its tributaries and Lake. There has been some consideration, she said, about giving students an opportunity to serve as a non-voting member of the board.
“We are hopeful about establishing an endowment for scholarships that will help train the next generation of water warriors,” Deason-Toyne said. “Allowing students to serve as a non-voting board member is another way to generate interest and participation in STIR and grow our next generation of water warriors.”
Peggy Glenn, executive director of the NSU Foundation, said anyone can donate to the STIR scholarship fund. Scholarships, she said, reduce the amount of debt many students accumulate while earning a college degree — the annual cost for a full-time student who lives on campus totals about $15,600.
“Scholarships are an ideal way to reduce that burden while rewarding student excellence and commitment,” Glenn said in a letter to STIR, noting the NSU Foundation awarded more than $1.18 million in 2022. That “was an all-time high, though the need is so much greater.”
Glenn said anyone who wants to contribute to the STIR Scholarship Endowment may do so online or by mail.
Online donations may be made at www.nsugiving.com/donate by designating the amount to be donated and the words "STIR Scholarship" in the box for comments. Scholarship contributions made by check should be made payable to NSU Foundation, with “STIR Scholarship” written on the memo line, and sent to 812 N Cedar Ave, Tahlequah, OK 74464.
“Donors can also set up regular monthly, quarterly, or annual donations through that form,” Glenn said about donations made online.
D.E. Smoot is an independent journalist writing for Save the Illinois River Inc.