A Family’s Legacy Inspires Future Generations

Loyola Marymount University has been part of the Lester family for more than 60 years. Conrad Lester, a scholar of German language and literature, was a professor in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department from 1958-1968 at what was then Loyola University of Los Angeles. His two children, Paul and Monica Lester, grew up in Los Angeles and have many fond memories of LMU.

“We used to sit in on our father’s classes,” reflects Paul Lester. “Many of the priests were wonderful mentors and other Loyola faculty members were close family friends.”

Conrad’s pathway to Loyola was a formidable one. Conrad escaped from Nazi occupied Austria to Czechoslovakia where he attempted to launch a newspaper called “Free Austria.” As the war progressed, Conrad left German-occupied Europe for the United States. Upon arrival in New York, he bought a car and embarked on a cross-country drive to Los Angeles.

Settling in L.A., Conrad enrolled at UCLA and earned a Ph.D. in Germanic languages. He also briefly taught at UCLA before joining the faculty at Loyola upon the recommendation of a parish priest. In 1968, he returned to Austria with his wife and son, Paul. Monica rejoined the family in Austria a year later after graduating with her degree in psychology from UCLA.

Monica, in many ways like her father, went on to complete a Ph.D. As a social psychologist, she was interested in the study of motivation. She spent the early part of her career in academia, translating colleagues’ papers from German into English. Later in her career, she went into private practice consulting companies on employee motivation, as well as the mindsets and practices of excellent leadership.

Despite residing in Europe, the Lester family retained its ties to L.A. and an LMU education. After the passing of Conrad in 1996, Paul and Monica worked with Frank Lee to establish the Conrad H. Lester Memorial Scholarship. When Monica passed away in 2016, Paul worked with Frank Lee again, along with Joel Levine, to establish the Monica Lester Endowment for Psychology. Frank Lee, the Lester’s longtime family accountant and one of the administrators of the trust, is also an alumnus of Loyola Law School, another coincidental but meaningful Loyola connection.

“My father had a deep appreciation for education and believed it to be our greatest asset,” says Paul. “He also believed in making education available to all who want and need it, and instilled these values in my sister and I.”

The Conrad H. Lester Memorial Scholarship supports undergraduate students interested in the study of the language, literature, and culture of the German-speaking world. The Monica Lester Endowment for Psychology funds research opportunities for students and faculty in one of LMU’s largest majors.

“Having over 500 majors, many of our students and student researchers come from under-represented groups,” says David Hardy, professor of psychology and chair of the department. “Donor support, particularly the Monica Lester Endowment for Psychology, has super-charged our ability to fund the research activities of these students.”

The endowment was founded on a $500,000 gift in 2018, but its specific uses were defined in 2019 when Levine and Lee visited LMU. The two trustees worked with leadership in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and Psychology Department to shape the endowment to reflect the interests, values, and priorities of Monica, as well as the needs and goals of faculty and students.

In academic year 2019-20, the Monica Lester Endowment for Psychology supported more than 20 research efforts led by both students and faculty, ranging from independent research, to honors theses and projects engaging students as co-investigators and research assistants. The skills acquired and relationships formed (especially with faculty mentors) from these substantive undergraduate research experiences are essential in providing students with an edge in applying for graduate schools and jobs.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Brett Marroquín’s study on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic is a timely example of the endowment at work. “Because of support from the Lester Endowment, my lab was able to get a longitudinal study of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic launched very quickly in March, involving students from the beginning as we explore mental health effects of the pandemic over time,” says Marroquín.

Funds from the endowment have also been a huge asset to independent student research and student-faculty mentoring relationships. Reed Morgan ’20, an alumnus of the psychology honors program, worked with Marroquín on his COVID-19 study, as well as his own project on music as a form of emotion regulation and its link with mental health. “The opportunity for Morgan to develop, design, and execute his own project would not have been possible without this type of donor support,” says Marroquín.

“I really enjoyed my senior thesis because, along with other research opportunities I was fortunate to be involved in during my time at LMU, I was able to see how what I learned in the classroom applies to the world outside of class,” says Morgan. “Additionally, my senior thesis data became the baseline for Professor Marroquín’s COVID-19 study and we were able to re-survey those same participants as the pandemic progressed. Thanks to the Monica Lester Endowment for Psychology, which funded both my senior thesis and the subsequent waves of data collection for the COVID-19 study, I got my first co-authorship credential on a peer-reviewed paper.”

The endowment has also enabled students to travel with faculty to national and international conferences. For instance, in 2019, three students (including two from under-represented groups) were able to present their research at a top-flight psychology conference in Toronto, Canada. “Experiences such as these, on-campus in the lab or out in the larger world, can be invaluable and transformative,” says Hardy.

Morgan is one of the students in the department who has benefitted from presenting data at a professional conference. He traveled to New Orleans and Montreal for the Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to present research findings with Psychology Professor Richard Abrams. “These two conferences were highlights of my LMU experience, and allowed me to see where my LMU psychology degree could take me (both figuratively and literally). I am very grateful to the Monica Lester Endowment for giving me these opportunities,” says Morgan.

The endowment has been especially impactful during the pandemic, as it has allowed the Psychology Department to invest in software and online tools to help students, faculty, and staff continue their research in our virtual learning/working environment. In fact, many students and faculty have been able to learn new skills and expand their repertoire of research proficiencies.

“Providing our students and faculty with resources to unlock their full potential is a powerful investment in a healthier, more just and equitable world,” says Robbin D. Crabtree, dean, BCLA. “We are profoundly grateful to the Lester family, past and present, for their extraordinary and transformative contributions to LMU.”