Caring for Wildcats

Charlie and Debbie Morrison give to improve student wellness.

Daycare, diapers, rent, medical bills. After paying these expenses, Charlie and Debbie Morrison did not have much left for food or extracurricular activities that would make college the experience that it should be. Both attended Kansas State University, meeting their junior year, having come from different circumstances.

Debbie was a first-generation student who put herself through college. “Freshman year was a lot harder than I anticipated. I worked two jobs and took out student loans just to barely get by,” Debbie said. “I came back sophomore year but had to take a semester off to put some money away. My parents didn’t understand. They thought I could just get another job, but they didn’t think about the time I needed to study. It was hard, and I felt alone because the majority of my friends didn’t have this situation.”

Charlie came from a family of successful KU graduates, but he fell in love with K-State when he visited. He had a scholarship to study engineering but discovered that wasn’t the best fit for him. After returning home to Wichita and taking a couple semesters of classes at Wichita State, he returned to K-State to study business. He and Debbie met during their junior year when both returned to K-State.

They married while still students and welcomed their first daughter. “We learned the reality and responsibility of life overnight,” said Charlie. “We were both working. We were both trying to finish school. It was a challenging time.”

And finding support for their challenge proved difficult while also dealing with the stigma and disappointment of being pregnant while in college. “There were a lot of people that thought we would not make it, including those closest to us.”

Lacking health insurance for the pregnancy, the Morrisons had to pay for their daughter’s birth, which ended up being a c-section. So on top of all their school and life expenses, they started their journey as a family with significant medical bills.

“We didn’t have what we needed so we had to scrape and claw,” Charlie said. “During our first couple of years, we had to pay for our medical bills out of pocket, finish school, find a job, pay for daycare as best we could, have a car to get us around — all these things we needed. It was a trying time in our life, but we persevered.”

Debbie dropped out of school to support Charlie as he finished his degree. Following advice from a business school professor that would prove extremely beneficial, Charlie learned to code COBOL.

While working his first job after graduating from K-State, Charlie learned of an opening at Pizza Hut in their Wichita corporate offices for someone who understood SAS, which is a computer language similar to COBOL. Charlie landed the job and the Morrisons’ journey to financial success was underway. Today, Charlie is the chairman and CEO of Wingstop Restaurants, Inc.

Having first-hand knowledge of how difficult college can be for any student, but particularly for first-generation students and students struggling financially, the Morrisons have invested in several student wellness initiatives at K-State.

They’ve created the Morrison Center for Student Well-being, which will oversee all aspects of student well-being campuswide. They gave a generous gift to the Cats’ Cupboard, K-State’s food pantry, naming the director position the Morrison Family Director of Cats’ Cupboard. They created a scholarship for first-generation students in the College of Business Administration. And they’ve invested in K-State’s student athletes with a gift to help create space and programming for mental health and wellness services.

“Life as a student is difficult,” Charlie said. “It’s a difficult transition in life. There’s a lot of pressure put on you. You might be away from home for the first time. You might be depressed about that. And then you just have all the challenges of student life — activities, classes … everything. The question is, where are the resources to help students cope with this because it’s going to be hard. We want to make sure people know they have access to assistance while maintaining their dignity and without scrutiny.”

“When we struggled, there weren’t many resources to access, but our K-State family supported us,” Debbie said. “That’s what we want to do now; pay it forward. We want to take away the stigma of asking for help. You’re a stronger person if you ask for help.”

The Morrisons’ gifts may provide the extra help a student needs to stay at K-State and finish their degree, whether their struggles are financial or emotional.

“One of the Division of Student Life’s key strategic goals is to ‘champion students’ holistic well-being’,” said Thomas Lane, vice president for student life and dean of students. “The Morrison family’s generous gift will greatly help advance student wellness on campus through the creation of the Morrison Center for Student Well-being. The center will gather data to identify current issues impacting student wellness and be a centralized hub for promoting, coordinating and scaling up Student Life well-being programs, as well as help promote other campus wellness initiatives. Additionally, the center will serve as a home for ‘gatekeeper’ training for faculty, staff and students to recognize and refer students with a well-being concern and connect students to information and resources through a number of different engagement activities. This intentional approach to increasing student well-being at K-State would not be possible without the Morrison family’s dedication and commitment.”

Charlie and Debbie hope that with these initiatives in place, students will have access to the help they needed when they were struggling students.

“I will tell you that I didn’t do well academically because I was constantly worrying about how much money I had in my checking account and how many hours I needed to work to pay the bills, let alone think about studying,” Debbie said. “You can’t do that at the same time and be successful at either one of them. We hear stories now from the Cats’ Cupboard and how it has really helped.”

The Morrisons have done more for K-State than give money. They give their time, too. All four of their children attended K-State for either undergraduate, graduate school or both. Charlie and Debbie served on the Parents and Family Association board for many years and helped get Cats’ Cupboard started. They also participate in St. Isidore’s Konza Student Table, serving hundreds of K-State students dinner once a week.

“We get involved because it is the example of what you do, not just what you give, that show your children the way to be in life,” Debbie said. “Maybe it goes back to my 4-H days, following the slogan of 4-H; serving with your head, your heart and your hands.”

“Our faith is a big part of our service work,” Charlie said. “Financially, we’ve been blessed. But it’s not the money that drives us, it’s what we can do with it to make a difference.”

While struggling to finish college, it was the opportunity for extracurricular activities — attending basketball or football games or being with friends — that made a difficult experience enjoyable for Charlie and Debbie. They hope their gifts to K-State not only provide the financial and total wellness support students need to succeed academically but should also provide the gift of fun.

“All college students should get to experience the full college experience,” Debbie said. “Go to athletic events, go to Aggieville with friends, everything. There are so many experiences of college one can choose to go through. We don’t want there to be any dead ends for them if there doesn’t have to be. Opening the doors is what we really want to do.”

Originally published in August 2021.

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