BNSF scholarship program helps employees’ children embark on college and career

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Oct 14, 2022

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5 min.

BNSF scholarship program helps employees’ children embark on college and career

Throughout high school, Eric Chavez’s father encouraged him to keep his grades up and stay on top of his goals so that he could get the BNSF Railway Foundation scholarship. His father is Gabe Chavez, a BNSF signal maintainer. After he applied, Eric and his family waited eagerly to hear from BNSF.

“When I applied, I was thinking about how hard my dad works and how BNSF has really helped create a support system for him and the railroad community,” Eric said. “One of the questions on the application asked about BNSF’s impact on my life and that was a big one – the community and support it created.”

BNSF is committed to supporting higher education through scholarship opportunities. Each year the BNSF Railway Foundation awards up to 50 scholarships to high school seniors who are dependents of full-time BNSF employees or retirees. Applicants are selected based on academic achievement.

These scholarships provide $5,000 per year for National Merit Scholars or $2,500 per year for BNSF Scholarship winners. Each scholarship is renewable annually for up to four years of undergraduate course work.

Gabe Chavez has worked for BNSF going on 27 years. Eric said some of his own work ethic and dedication came from watching his dad throughout his life.

“He is a really hard worker. One of his biggest priorities is his co-workers’ safety. The railroad really helped my dad build a set of values about what a good work environment and work family mean,” Eric said. “BNSF has been great to our family.”

This year 49 students received scholarships, including Eric. He was sitting in the living room at home when he got the email from the foundation with the good news. “My dad and I both opened the email, and we were super excited,” Eric said. “My dad was very proud of me. It was a great feeling.”

Eric began his first semester at the University of California, Berkeley in August. He’s majoring in integrated biology and hopes to go to medical school one day to become a podiatrist. With all the costs associated with labs and classes, he’s thankful for the scholarship’s assistance.

“This scholarship really takes off some of the pressure of paying for my education. I’m excited about my chemistry labs and the equipment we get to use to do experiments. All of my professors and other students are from all over the world, so I am looking forward to learning about other cultures and other perspectives,” Eric said.

Beau Norby

Beau Norby received his scholarship in 2016, and started at the University of Minnesota, Duluth as a music major. He soon realized music wasn’t what he wanted to do for his career, but he’d never thought of a backup plan. Later, he visited the Twin Cities and was awed by some of the buildings along the river, specifically a Frank Gehry building.

“I looked into who Frank Gehry was and thought maybe I should give architecture a try. I liked designing and creating things, so I looked at nearby universities with good architecture programs. North Dakota State University was a great option for me. It was a happy accident that I saw a pretty building and went for it. Here I am seven years later,” Beau said. He graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. He now works for an architecture firm in Fargo, North Dakota, doing what he loves.

“Getting my education and becoming an architect taught me more than just architecture. I learned design and creativity as well. It really opened up this other part of my personality and everything about me as an individual,” Beau said.

Growing up, Beau was surrounded by the railroad. His dad, Nathan Norby, has worked for BNSF for nearly 30 years and is currently a signal maintainer. He remembers driving through town or riding on his school bus and being able to point out his dad working as he and his friends rode by.

Beau looks back on his time in school with fond memories and is grateful for BNSF’s help. “Their effort to have a scholarship opportunity like this is so important. It really makes a difference, and they are contributing to all the efforts and time students put into school. I really appreciate that.”

Claire Olsen

Claire Olsen also received her scholarship in 2016, but almost didn’t apply because BNSF is such a big company and she couldn’t imagine getting it.

“I remember my dad telling me about it. I just thought it was silly for me to apply. I went to a small high school and just couldn’t imagine how my life experience was relevant to receiving the scholarship,” Claire said. However, her dad continued to encourage her to at least try.

She was shocked when she received the email announcing that she was one of the recipients. She describes her dad, Richard Hamlin, as an even-keeled guy who doesn’t typically outwardly react to things. “He doesn’t get emotional or reactive very often, but when he found out, he was just over the moon. It was probably some of the biggest emotion or excitement I have ever seen out of him. It was really sweet.”

Richard Hamlin has worked for BNSF for most of Claire’s life. He’s a locomotive engineer. Throughout her childhood, Claire and her family’s lives were braided with BNSF memories, from Christmas rides on passenger trains to stopping by the rail yard and waving at her dad. The scholarship felt even more meaningful to Claire and her family because of how much of their lives included the company.

“Orange was always a big color in our house,” Claire said. “The logo, the bright orange gloves my dad wore, and our BNSF Christmas ornaments are all big parts of my childhood. It wasn’t just the letters BNSF to us; it was a family.”

Claire started at Oklahoma State University for her first two years and then transferred closer to home at Emporia State University in Kansas where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications. She’s currently the media resourcing administrator for Fellowship Bible Church in northwest Arkansas where she creates content, works on communication plans, and edits the website. She was one of the first of her family to graduate from college.

The scholarship allowed Claire’s family to worry less and focus more on the rewarding parts of her education. “It made paying for college less intimidating because we didn’t have to focus so much on the money,” she said. It also helped her finish school debt free, something for which she’ll always be thankful.

If you’re a dependent of a BNSF employee or retiree, a high school senior, and interested in applying for the BNSF Railway Foundation Scholarship, the application period will begin Dec.1 and the deadline is Feb. 23, 2023. More details about the process will be published through employee communications channels in November.

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