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Valley Scholars

JMU seeks to prepare students for college —  and offers them scholarships

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Valley Scholars participate in a nursing simulation lab at JMU’s
College of Health and Behavioral Studies.

James Madison University is an economic engine for the Harrisonburg area. The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service reports that JMU students, employees and visitors spent more than $480 million in the region in 2015. The university itself spent an additional $282 million there that year.

But JMU also is making another kind of investment in the Shenandoah Valley. It’s one that won’t pay off for years, but the university expects the return will be big.

The Valley Scholars program, now in its third year, promises scholarships covering tuition and fees at JMU to rising eighth-graders who complete the program’s curriculum and maintain its standards through high school. 

Those standards require getting good grades in classes that prepare students for college, but it’s more than that, according to Shaun Mooney, director of Valley Scholars. “That means focusing on all of the social capital and life skills that you really need to have to be the most successful person you can be,” Mooney says. “And it’s a lot of work.”

The goal, Mooney says, is “to make college possible for very bright, talented young men and women who otherwise don’t believe college is in their future. Some of those barriers might be cultural or social,” he says. “They’re certainly financial in nature. Many of the students we work with come from families where they know paying for college is not going to be an option.”

The Valley Scholars program was initiated by JMU President Jonathan Alger, who was involved in a similar program at Rutgers University. A $130,000 grant from the Jesse Ball duPont Fund helped get the program started.

“Overall this year, the programmatic piece costs a shade over $200,000,” Mooney says, adding that the university, with the help of some grant money, takes care of that. “The true cost is much more, as many people give their time and resources to [the program] without reimbursement, both on campus and off.”

The services provided to program participants cost about $7,000 a year for each student. That amount is covered by private donations.

The program draws its scholars from 11 middle schools and 11 high schools in seven Shenandoah Valley school systems: Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro plus Augusta, Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties. In each of the past three years, Valley Scholars has admitted 35 new students.

Mooney says the program plans to admit 44 new students next fall — and he expects about 130 applicants for those spots. Students apply at the end of the seventh grade. Those who are accepted have to be academically motivated and capable of college work.

Program criteria
Valley Scholars must be the first people in their families to attend college, and they must have economic need. Nearly all applicants meet those basic requirements, Mooney says — more than half the students in Shenandoah Valley schools are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches — so the program faces difficult choices with each incoming class.

Each applicant must submit an essay and sit for an interview. Reviewers try to get to know students and their families to determine who is most likely to succeed in the program.

Mooney says Valley Scholars could probably make a difference for every applicant. On average, a college degree means about $1 million more in earnings over a career.  People with more education also are more likely to participate in their communities. They’re more inclined to volunteer and to vote.

“We also see it as an investment in the community,” Mooney says. “We hope that many of these students will choose to stay and live and raise their families in these communities.”

JMU is the primary programmatic supporter, housing the organization, employing its staff and hosting events. But the seven school divisions are deeply involved, too.  Economic support comes from the university, local businesses and individual donors in the community and beyond.

Students accepted into the program must maintain a minimum grade point average, take advanced placement and honors classes, demonstrate good citizenship and participate in a series of classes and programs, including community service.

They’re on the JMU campus a dozen or more times each year — sometimes on school days, sometimes on Saturdays. They also spend a week on campus during the summers between ninth and eleventh grades. They get exposure to majors and careers and learn study skills and time management. They also learn how to navigate a business lunch, prepare for college classes and engage in service projects.

“I guess the message for our students is that throughout your life you’re going to have people invest in you, so you’re going to have to also invest in other people,” Mooney says. “That builds a better community than being selfish or self-centered.”

College students are mentors
The program’s eighth- and ninth-graders get a weekly visit from a mentor, a JMU student. The mentors go through a rigorous selection process, too.

“They have to be able to articulate why they want to be a mentor, what they have to offer, what their background and experiences are,” Mooney says. Many mentors are either first-generation college students, or they overcame obstacles to get to JMU.  “So they want to give back to the students who are in the position they were in not so long ago.”

Ronald Terry, a senior from Richmond, is a first-generation college student who has been a mentor for the past two semesters. He’s studying elementary education, a five-year program that leads to earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees plus a license to teach.

Terry, who mentors five ninth-graders, spoke at an event last year, telling Valley Scholars about his road to JMU and worries about college. When he finished, many students told him how his story touched them.

Another mentor, Nikki Boyce, is a senior from Winchester who is studying finance and economics. She plans to work for a software company in the Washington, D.C. , area after graduation.

Boyce says the five students she mentors remind her of high school classmates, many of whom didn’t go to college. She enjoys seeing her charges realize how important a college education can be.

Mentoring Valley Scholars requires preparation, time and effort. It sounds like a big commitment, but Boyce says, “It doesn’t feel that way to me because I love it … I feel like I get more out of it than the kids do.”

Positive reaction
The real payoff for the scholars is years away, but many of them seem to be getting a lot from the program already.

“The happiest moment of my life was when I found out I was accepted into the Valley Scholars Program, because it brightened my future,” Alexandria Richardson, a 10th-grader who wants to become a social worker,  says on the group’s Facebook page. “I am proud to be a Valley Scholar because it is a great opportunity for success in the future.”

Other program participants make similar points in their postings.  Karleigh Painter talks about the confidence she’s gained and how supportive everyone has been. Juan Saenz also says he’s gained confidence as well as organizational and time-management skills. Raven Rogers says the program has helped her decide what she wants to be, a surgeon. Daniel Gaete calls the program exciting, fun and challenging. He wants to be a JMU professor.

The scholars’ parents come to campus twice a year to learn about money management, financial aid and ways to support their students, such as providing them with an appropriate place to study and responding to their concerns about school.

“Some of it is just having the families become comfortable with higher education,” Mooney says. “We’re a university. We’re a whole bunch of folks who are highly educated, and they’re turning their child over to us with the assumption that we have their best interests at heart, to a place ...  they’re not always very comfortable with, to a place they don’t necessarily believe they belong.”

The program works to make scholars’ parents feel they do belong at JMU and are welcome to participate in campus life.

The Valley Scholars’ oldest cohort is in the 10th grade. So far, 104 of the 109 students who have become Valley Scholars are still in the program. Two moved out of the area. One decided he wanted to do something besides college. Catching students on the cusp of high school is practically a last chance to get them aimed at higher education.

“Would earlier be better? Absolutely,” Mooney says. “Is it logistically possible? Probably not.

“The end of seventh grade and into the eighth grade, you have a developmental window there where you can change the expectations and the pathway and have a much better shot at moving the student where you want to go.”

A lot of financial aid money is wasted, Mooney says, because students come to college unprepared for the experience. JMU is trying to get more students prepared for  college, but Valley Scholars is aiming higher than that.

“We’re preparing them for success,“ Mooney says, “not just in college. We’re preparing them for success in life.”

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