NORFOLK, Neb. -- Leah Barrett was skeptical -- and understandably so -- when an email landed in her inbox telling her a philanthropist was interested in making a contribution to Northeast Community College.
Something like that rarely happens, the college president said.
"I support the efforts of a philanthropist who is interested in contributing to Northeast Community College," the email read. "I was hoping we could schedule a quick 15-minute follow-up to discuss next steps."
Barrett, who is finishing her first year at Northeast, forwarded the email on to the college's chief information officer, who suggested it could potentially be spam.
At the suggestion of the writer, Barrett decided to read more about the philanthropy of MacKenzie Scott, an author and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
She's glad she did.
When she later hopped on the call, Barrett learned Scott planned to give $15 million to Northeast, which serves a 20-county area in northeast Nebraska from its primary campus in Norfolk. Northeast has a campus at the College Center in South Sioux City, which it shares with Wayne State College.
The $15 million gift is the largest in Northeast's history. Previously, the largest charitable donation had been a $5 million gift from the Acklie Family Foundation to establish a farm on the campus.
"I started to cry, and I couldn't breathe," Barrett said. "Looking back at my notes, they are very shaky. I was overwhelmed."
Barrett said Northeast's foundation board will meet in the coming months to make plans to create an endowment with Scott's gift, which she said will be used for student scholarships and success initiatives.
"The important thing is this gift will last in perpetuity," Barrett said. "You spend the proceeds, so it's something that can be used every single year to support these efforts."
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 45% of Northeast's students qualify for federal financial aid intended for low-income students, while 1 in 4 students are from minority groups.
Barrett said as a community college, Northeast serves as an introduction to higher education for those who may be exploring their career options or who may not be ready to attend a four-year institution.
It also trains students, both traditional and nontraditional, "who know exactly what they want to do" in two-year degree fields offered by the college.
"This is going to provide an opportunity for anyone in northeast Nebraska who wants to further their education," Barrett said. "We are honored to receive this gift."