Murphy Scholarship Fund: 30 years of opening doors for Catholic high school students

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Editor’s note: This article was written before the Archdiocese of Chicago suspended public liturgies and the schools it operates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 1990, the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund started in Chicago, providing funding for four students to attend two high schools, the independent Providence-St. Mel and Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

Thirty years later, it has become the largest high school scholarship fund in Chicago, providing scholarships for more than 460 high school students enrolled in more than 80 private day schools in the Chicago area and boarding schools across the country. St. Ignatius College Prep alone has 65 Murphy Scholars enrolled this year.

The scholarships are open to students from Chicago, Berwyn and Cicero who could not otherwise afford to go to the schools in which they are enrolled.

All of the Murphy Scholars generally have been accepted to four-year colleges and universities, and 84 percent of them have graduated or are on track to graduate, said Jose Rodriguez, the fund’s executive director.

Rodriguez said the leaders of the fund hope to expand its programs significantly in the next few years by adding high school partners and scholars and adding outreach services to alumni in college.

“It’s all about cementing this ethos of Murphy Scholars for life,” Rodriguez said. “We’re building affinity with them post-high school, so they’ll be more likely to come back to volunteer to interview applicants or to mentor scholars.”

Catherine O’Connor, a Murphy Scholar and senior at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, is hoping to do just that.

O’Connor graduated from St. Juliana School, 7400 W. Touhy Ave., in 2016, and said her family could not have sent her to Loyola without the scholarship. While there, she has been heavily involved in the school’s fine arts program, singing in the choir, leading an a capella group, and winning a lead role in three of the four musicals she’s participated in.

She’s already been accepted into the music program at Illinois State and is still in the audition process for music programs at other schools.

She heard about the Murphy Scholarship from a family member; now she and her family have recommended it to other people in the neighborhood.

Her success story is not unique.

“It’s our programs that promote persistence,” Rodriguez said. The fund selects eighth graders based not only on grades, but also on strong character and a demonstrated eagerness to attend an academically rigorous school.

“Generally, we are talking about students who are getting A’s and B’s, but also are showing up every single day and getting their homework done,” Rodriguez said. Those qualities are demonstrated through essays, letters of recommendation, and for those who make the first cut, interviews with a panel of adults.

Those interviews can be a little intimidating to applicants, but Rodriguez said they usually do well.

“They’ve got it together a lot of times when they interview with us,” he said.

O’Connor said the idea of the interview was scarier than actually doing it.

“I really had my mind set on the scholarship, so I was nervous going in, but the people were so kind and genuine,” she said. “Once I was there, it wasn’t bad.”

The fund spends about $2 million a year on scholarships, with up to $5,000 going to each student. Families also are expected to pay a small portion of the tuition, with the partner schools making up the difference. In some cases, the scholarship covers the whole cost; in other cases, especially boarding schools, the institutions waive tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and other fees.

For schools, he said, a student who comes with a Murphy Scholarship is seen as one who is prepared to be successful.

“Our partner schools look at us as a reliable organization that’s going to put the students through a vetting process to make sure they are academically and socially prepared,” Rodriguez said. “They value the students that are coming from our community.”

Once scholars are accepted, they attend a summer program before freshman year that includes work on study skills, executive functioning and how students can advocate for themselves and take advantage of the resources offered at their schools.

Once they are in high school, mentors and tutoring make sure they stay on track.

Representatives from the fund visit at least 100 elementary schools every year, but now, with its track record, many teachers, principals and guidance counselors are aware of the program and encourage students who would be a good fit to apply.

Of the 1,000 applications received every year, about 250 make the cut for an interview. Of those, about 170 are offered scholarships, and about 130 accept them.

Much of the programming and scholarships are covered by individual donors, or by the proceeds from an annual golf outing in May.

Golf has benefited Murphy Scholars in another way, as well. Scholars are invited to participate in the fund’s caddie program, placing them in the caddie ranks at golf clubs in the area each summer during high school. That allows them to make money, network with club members and set themselves up to qualify for the Chick Evans Scholarship, a private college scholarship that covers full tuition and housing to caddies.

O’Connor is hoping that she will be among their number next year, after spending three summers caddying at Evanston Golf Club. Even if she doesn’t receive a scholarship, the experience was valuable, she said.

“I learned so much,” she said. “Without the Daniel Murphy Scholarship, I never would have caddied, I never would have gotten to network with all the people I networked with. It was definitely worth it.”

For more on the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, visit