By Kevin Richardson
Growing up in Kansas, Jennifer Burr Altabef dreamed of going away to college as her older siblings had. She had met several SMU graduates, and had set her heart on attending the University.
But when she was 15, Altabef’s father called her into his office to impart some difficult news that might have shattered that dream permanently. He told her he had lost his job and would be unable to pay for her education after she graduated from high school.
Determined to earn enough money to pay for college, Altabef worked minimum-wage jobs throughout most of her high school career. She ultimately applied and earned acceptance to SMU, but with a little more than $3,000 saved, the Hilltop seemed out of reach.
Then, she received a letter from SMU informing her that she would receive scholarship support that would make her education possible.
Altabef was overwhelmed.
“I almost couldn’t believe that people who didn’t even know me had made it possible for me to attend SMU,” she says about the donors who created her scholarships. “It was life-changing. I was determined to do well because I didn’t want to let them down.”
Fascinated by the Watergate scandal and the role played by reporters, Altabef studied journalism and earned her bachelor’s degree from Meadows School of the Arts in 1978. She eventually decided to pursue a legal career and credits her Meadows professors with teaching her to write, a skill she has relied on throughout her professional life.
“The ability to write well is one of the most important and useful skills a person can have,” she says. “I am so lucky for the rigorous training that I received from my journalism professors. It’s helped me in everything I have ever done.”
When Altabef applied to law schools, she badly wanted to stay in Dallas and knew the SMU Dedman School of Law would offer the best path into the Dallas legal community. The University of Kansas offered a full scholarship that might have taken her back to Kansas. But once again, SMU scholarship support — combined with loans — helped her achieve her dream.
After Altabef graduated from Dedman School of Law in 1981, she began what became a distinguished career in labor and employment law and litigation. She never forgot what had helped enable her achieve so much success.
“Every morning that I went to the office, I was aware that someone whom I did not know had made it possible for me to stay in Dallas, made it possible for me to practice law, and made it possible for me to have the life I chose,” Altabef says.
Altabef became involved with SMU as a volunteer after a former dean of the Meadows School asked her to lunch. He told her about the exciting educational experiences students were having at Meadows and throughout SMU. Memories of her own experiences on the Hilltop and what she heard about today’s SMU inspired her to serve her alma mater.
Altabef has served as a member of the SMU Libraries Executive Board and the Meadows School of the Arts Executive Board, on which she is slated to serve as the next chair. “I feel grateful to SMU for essentially giving me my life,” she says. “So I jumped at the opportunity to be involved.”
In her work on behalf of the Meadows School, Altabef has developed a strong connection with the Meadows Scholars Program, which raises annual and endowed resources to bring top-caliber students in the arts and communications to SMU.
“The simple truth is that scholarships change lives,” Altabef says. “I know that because scholarships changed my life. For that reason, it is also true that people who receive scholarships are the people who most want to give them.”