The UA College of Optical Sciences’ 50th anniversary is this year, but it has more to celebrate than a birthday.

The college just received the largest scholarship gift in University of Arizona history — up to $10 million in endowments from Jim Wyant, a former dean of the college and a professor emeritus.

The main goal of the scholarship donation is to support first-year graduate students “so that they can study, learn and understand all the different opportunities they have for conducting research,” said Tom Koch, the dean of the college.

The donation will start supporting about 25 students at the beginning of the next academic year.

Wyant said the idea behind his donation is that “first-year graduate students generally don’t know much about optics, so the faculty doesn’t really want to hire them to work on research programs because they’re not so useful.” After that first year, he said, “they can become very useful.”

There’s also “lots of competition to get the best graduate students, so (the donation) will enable us to continue getting outstanding graduate students,” he said.

Sam Nerenberg, a first-year graduate student of optical sciences, said “funding really determines your ability to make progress in your Ph.D. and whether or not you can do your research and pay rent or survive.”

It’s tough to make a living and do graduate work, he said.

“If you don’t have funding from a professor or fellowship, you can work outside of school, which is extremely difficult and time-consuming,” he said, “or you can be a teaching assistant.”

He said he’s currently a teaching assistant for two classes because he wasn’t funded for his first year. “With that extra time commitment it’s definitely tough — you’re expected to work about 20 hours a week for each TA position.”

Scholarships allow students to conduct research in areas that interest them, Nerenberg said, “rather than be forced into a direction based on external monetary constraints.”

Nerenberg said the donation will make the UA a more appealing place for students to complete their doctoral degrees.

The UA “can say, ‘if you come to us, we will invest in you and make sure that you’re able to follow your passions and be as creative and productive as your potential allows,” he said.

He praised Wyant’s commitment.

“I see this donation as the mark of somebody who is really passionate about science and understands what it takes to be able to make progress in a scientific field,” Nerenberg said. He said Wyant is “still trying to push forward the boundaries of science by funding the next generation of people who can contribute to it.”

Drew McCullough is a NASA Space Grant intern at the Arizona Daily Star.