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UNLV unveils large scholarship program

Neal Smatresk, the president of UNLV, said a scholarship program formally announced Thursday would one day grow to become one of the largest in the country.

A gift by Las Vegas casino executive and real estate developer Philip Cohen, who died in 2010, will initially fund more than 40 scholarships a year.

The endowment that pays for the scholarships sits at about
$7 million now, Smatresk said. But as other beneficiaries pass on in the years to come, the money will revert to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. No one could say how much that eventually will be.

“This gift will grow with time,” Smatresk said. “It won’t just grow a little bit. It will grow significantly.”

The scholarships are designed to provide full rides to students who usually do not qualify for financially based scholarships because they are not poor enough, but their grades are not stellar enough to allow them to qualify for many academic scholarships.

In honor of the gift, the university named the theater in the student union the Philip J. Cohen Theatre.

Cohen, who was born in Baltimore in 1922, moved to Las Vegas after serving in World War II. He eventually rose through the ranks in the casino industry and became a rich man dealing in real estate.

Though he never went to school past the eighth grade himself, he sought education later in life. He took so many night courses at UNLV over the years, said his niece, Joan Rodick, that he was actually close to having enough credits for a degree.

She said her uncle was “not just a rich guy who had nothing better to do with his money.” He cared about education, loved Las Vegas and was a huge Rebels fan.

Friend Craig Miller, a financial adviser, said he and another friend, Dan Anderson, used to go to lunch with Cohen often. It was not unusual for people to approach Cohen and pitch some sort of financial deal or another.

Cohen would listen intently, Miller said. When the person left, he would turn to Miller and Anderson.

“Did they say hello to you?” he would ask.

That was the criterion Cohen would use to figure out whether he would call the person back and talk to them some more, Miller said. That’s the kind of guy he was.

He and Anderson told the scholarship recipients who were in attendance that they had a lot to live up to.

“You are his legacy,” Anderson said. “Make him proud.”

Student Han Choi, a junior majoring in preprofessional biology, said the scholarship takes a burden off of him and his family. He said his parents are small-business people who do not have a lot of extra money.

He said he felt an enormous pressure by having them pay for his schooling, but they would not have it any other way despite not having much money.

Getting the scholarship, he said, was what it would feel like when the worst migraine you ever had suddenly disappears.

“It feels great, doesn’t it?” he said.

Melanie Arslanian, who will be a freshman at UNLV next fall, said her sisters went to UNLV, and she was going to continue the legacy. But she was also going so she could stay close to her family.

Her dad died of a heart attack last year, and it has been hard at home. She said the scholarship will be a big help to her mother.

“It just kind of takes the financial burden off of her shoulders,” she said.

She said she, growing up, always had wanted to be a pediatrician. But now, because of what happened to her dad, she wants to be a cardiologist. She will use the scholarship to help her get there.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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