When Bryson Garbett started at the University of Utah he had two goals: To get
a degree so he could go on to graduate school for an MBA, and to get involved. He
received a degree but it would be years before he would pursue the business training
from Harvard he wanted. His involvement, however, came much more easily.
During his first year, in addition to competing on the men’s gymnastics team,
for which he lettered, he also joined the Latter-day Saint Student Body Association
(LDSSA). After serving a mission in Italy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, Bryson returned to the U. It was his involvement in LDSSA that took him to
a recruitment event where he met Jan VanDenBerghe, a Brigham Young University student
home for break. After Bryson and Jan married, Jan transferred from BYU to the U where
she continued her studies in English.
Along with his involvement with LDSSA, Bryson was involved in student government
as treasurer and senator and later recruited Jan to join him on the activities committee.
He also accepted a reporting position with The Daily Utah Chronicle. He covered the
1976 Utah state elections, interviewing candidates and sitting legislators as well
as a Black Panther and an astronaut.
When Jan talks about her time at the U in the Department of English, she remembers
fondly how the writing process intrigued her: “The paper unfolded while you participated
in it. What you thought was going to be the end result isn’t always the case. It can
surprise you. That is what I loved about my major. Writing and reading and exploring
the world through other people’s eyes helps you be more refined in your own approach.
It helps you to make a decision with a little more compassion and evaluation.”
"The humanities is a field that teaches how to explore the world and your place
in it,” she reflects. “No matter what you do, you are impacted by humanities. Studying
language and community and thought, it opens you up till you feel like you can do
anything. There is a confidence that comes with a humanities education.”
After Bryson graduated with a history degree and Jan graduated with an English
degree, life didn’t go quite as planned. Bryson was not accepted to the MBA program
he’d hoped to attend and didn’t have strong prospects for work, so he began working
for his brother’s construction company. After learning the ropes and planning to apply
again to graduate school, Bryson and Jan decided to open their own construction company.
Bryson ran the contracting and construction work. With no one to do the books, Jan
jumped in. With the help of a program at the U, Jan learned the ins and outs of bookkeeping
and did so for the company until she was pregnant with their eighth child. It was
then that she “retired” to be with the family.
For many years and three recessions, Bryson and Jan were in survival mode. They
worked hard to make sure they paid all their debts and kept everyone happy even during
the hardest of times—giving their television to someone whom they owed money and their
car to another. Eventually Bryson received acceptance from Harvard in the Owner/ Presidents
Manager Program, finally fulfilling a lifelong goal he had set for himself when he
started his undergraduate degree at the U.
The Garbetts’ work office has always been in their home—at first in the basement
of their home in West Valley, then Sandy, and now in their remodeled 1905 home on
Capitol Hill. Through the chaos of kids and workers, they say it was always a gift
to have the business run out of their home. As their children grew up, because work
was always part of their family and in their home, they were each able to help with
the business in various capacities.
That is what I loved about my major. Writing and reading and exploring the world through
other people’s eyes helps you be more refined in your own approach. It helps you to
make a decision with a little more compassion and evaluation.
In 1997, somewhat by accident, their lives took a new path. Jan had a family
trip to Florida and Disney World planned. Flights were booked, everything was reserved
and then Jan learned of a humanitarian aid trip to
Mexico. She brought the idea to Bryson, who reminded her about the flights and the
reservations. They took it to the family for a vote. The family voted for the service
trip and their connection to the people of rural Mexico began. “Our lives were never the same. Every member of the family was truly impacted by the
service we gave, the work we completed, and the dire support needed in this area of
Mexico. All of us felt a strong desire to continue to be of help,” said Jan. And that
is exactly what they did. They started a new tradition of Christmas in Mexico where
they would find ways to really be of help. Eventually they landed on education support
in the rural communities.
It was that first trip which opened their eyes to what a high school education
could do for a young person. They soon established a foundation named Escalera (meaning
ladder in Spanish), which provided scholarships for students to attend a private high
school in Mexico City. This work has continued for over 25 years. The Garbetts continue
to seek new ways to motivate students to stay in school and to follow their dreams.
As of today, the Escalera Foundation has supported more than 125,000 students in being
able to attend high school.
Bryson’s goals early in life to attain an education and get involved on campus
and in the community were goals he shared with Jan, and together, they and their family
have given thousands of people the same opportunities. Through the Garbett Family
Foundation, they and their children have also continued their support of education
in Utah. The Writing Studies Scholars Program, housed in the U’s Department of Writing
& Rhetoric Studies, is a bridge program between Salt Lake Community College and the
U which has received transformative, multi-year funding from the Foundation.
“The Writing Studies Scholars program is so exciting for us to support because
we have done work down in Mexico and see the difference education can make in peoples’
lives when you give them that encouragement to move forward with their own education
and open their own doors,” Jan says. “So for a lot of first-generation students who
are in a new country or are navigating a new system, this is such a nurturing and
well thought out program at the U. We have studied other schools and other university’s
programs and been less impressed. What the U is doing is unique and effective.”
Bryson and Jan are quick to share that as donors, they have very critical eyes.
They realized early on that they wanted to evaluate their program in Mexico. They
sought to find out if they were making a difference, and if they were making the impact
they intended to make. After completing the evaluations, they found they needed to
make changes, and they did. It is important to them that Dr. Christie Toth has the
same philosophy about the Writing Studies Scholars program. “It is gratifying to see
someone take this so seriously. Someone who is willing to evaluate the program and
make changes to make it better. We are happy to support the program and really appreciate
the way they grow and learn on all fronts to better the lives of these students,”
As Bryson reflects on his time at the U he says, “Entering the U, my goal was
to get through. It didn’t have anything to do with an education. But a funny thing
happened—once I got in that university atmosphere, I did have mentors and opportunities
that headed me in the right direction. And I got an education despite myself.” Today,
they devote an incredible amount of time and support to ensuring others have the same