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Silicon Valley executive gives back through English scholarship


by Ciara Brennan ('17)

 
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SUMMARY: Senior Vice President of Salesforce John Taschek ('86) created the Taschek Family Scholarship in 2018 to give back to the English department he says "rescued" him during his Madison experience.


John Taschek ('86), the Senior Vice President of the cloud-based software company Salesforce, graduated from JMU when the entire campus was still located north of Interstate 81 and the student population was just under 10,000 – less than half its current size. “The library was new when I was a freshman,” he remembers, and it wasn’t even called Carrier Library; it was Madison Memorial.”  

But when Taschek returns to JMU now, he says it’s easier to recognize what hasn’t changed: the student spirit.  

“There is a wonderful vibe – the students are mostly happy and seem optimistic,” Taschek said. “I know that it’s impossible for everyone to be happy 100 percent of the time, but the atmosphere is one that creates the aura of possibility. I love it.”  

This aura of possibility Taschek feels when he returns to his alma mater may be due, in part, to what he describes as a “magical” experience of finding his place in the JMU English departmentI was a little aimless for a while as a freshman and sophomore. I had taken some hard science and calculus classes, and I didn’t like them. I had declared biology as a major and realized that it probably wasn’t for me.”  

Then, Taschek had a conversation about medieval literature and author John Steinbeck with the then-head of English Robert Geary, after which he was encouraged to consider major in English. 

Majoring in English was the single most important thing I have done,” Taschek said. “It brought out my love of literature, it enhanced my critical thinking, it made me intellectually curious ... Because the English department ‘rescued’ me, I wanted to give back. 

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Taschek (right) at his graduation from JMU in 1986.

Taschek chose to give back through the creation of the Taschek Family Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a full-time, undergraduate English major. Recipients must have completed at least three English courses and maintained a major GPA of 3.3. Since the scholarship was first established in Spring 2018, three students have received the honor.  

For Evan Nicholls (’20), the Taschek Family Scholarship gave him more of life’s most precious resource: time, specifically, time to devote to his writing. “Winning the Taschek Family Scholarship meant I was doing something right — and whether the Tascheks realized it or not, that included my writing,” he said. “Having a little more money to help pay the bills allowed me to focus on my schoolwork and my words.” 

With that time, Nicholls penned first drafts of many poems that are now compiled in one of two manuscripts. The writer and poet, who works as an assistant editor for a financial publication by day, chose English because of his lifelong affection for writing and after witnessing the way his older brother fell in love with the English department. “I fell in love pretty quick, too,” Nicholls said. “The English Department in Keezell is a gem, every one of them. I owe those professors so much.” 

Senior English major Jordan Zapp said receiving the scholarship was “tangible recognition” for her hard work in her courses. “It made me feel seen by my professors,” she said. “It also encouraged me to keep going, keep pursuing my passions and to continue actively learning every day.” 

One of those passions is teaching literature at the high school level and creating a learning environment “where students of all backgrounds feel safe and seen.” Zapp sees the high school classroom as an opportunity to teach a literary canon that reflects a diversity of perspectives, encouraging each student to see their own backgrounds, experiences and perspectives reflected in the texts. English class, to me, was always a class about life,” Zapp said. “It asks us to empathize, to understand, to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. To me, that is a major key to life. 

Taschek hopes this scholarship will reach “young, potentially rudderless students with great, but untapped potential, who see English as a major to be the key to their futures. And then I hope I am able to help them, even a little. 

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Published: Thursday, February 4, 2021

Last Updated: Friday, February 5, 2021

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