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Program Offers First-Generation College Students Full Ride At JMU

Six of the 31 students in the first graduating cohort of Valley Scholars.
Six of the 31 students in the first graduating cohort of Valley Scholars. Every student that completes the program is eligible for a full scholarship to JMU. Crixell Matthews/WCVE

Broadway High School is situated between two mountain ranges: the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains. Broadway is a mountain town, but also a big farming town with a population of under 4,000 people. The school also has a really high on-time high school graduation rate: over 95%. The school’s dropout rate is lower than the state average.

But even though the majority of the school’s students go on to graduate from high school, the area doesn’t have a high college graduation rate. According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), only about a quarter of  Virginians in rural areas of the state have an associates degree or higher.

A program called  Valley Scholars out of James Madison University is working to help more rural students go to college by working with would-be first-generation college students starting in middle school. The university’s president Jonathan Alger started the program in 2014.

“I felt very strongly that we should do something with the community around us to increase access to higher education and to start in our own backyard,” Alger said. “It turns out that in the Shenandoah Valley there are a lot of students who would be first-generation students to go to college, whose parents did not have that opportunity.”

The first cohort of Valley Scholars back when they were in middle school. They entered the program before starting 8th grade in 2014. (Photo courtesy of JMU)

Alger turned to a promising model out of Rutgers University called  Future Scholars. The program identifies low-income, high-achieving middle school students the summer before their 8th-grade year. Teachers and school staff recommend students for the program, and they go through an interview process.

Once selected, they have to meet a number of requirements throughout high school. Students have to keep up good grades and do community service. They have to take AP or dual enrollment classes, whatever is the most rigorous schedule their school offers. They also sit in on college classes and meet weekly with a JMU student mentor.

If they do all that, by the time they graduate, they’re eligible for free tuition at JMU for four years as long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA. Although, they’re required to apply to other colleges, too.

“We want them to look more broadly than just JMU to ensure that this is the right place for them to be,” said Sean Mooney, director of the Valley Scholars program.

The program’s first cohort started out with 35 students across seven school divisions in the Shenandoah Valley: Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta County, Rockingham County, Page County and Shenandoah County. This year, 31 of them graduated from the program, many with full or partial college scholarships. Twenty-six plan to attend JMU in the fall, all with full-ride scholarships.

“We're incredibly proud,” Mooney said. “You know, when you work with a student and a family for five years, you get to know them really well. And so in many ways, I think we see them as sort of our own children also.”

A current photo of the first cohort of Valley Scholar graduates. The group celebrated completing the program at JMU this spring.
(Photo courtesy of JMU)

Donna Abernathy is principal at Broadway High School. Four of her seniors were among the first cohort of Valley Scholars to graduate. She says the program helped them stay on track early on.

“These students already, they know, like there's this plan set for them,” Abernathy said. “And they follow that plan. They work hard for that.”

Dakota Mitchell is one of Abernathy’s students and a Valley Scholars. This Fall, he’ll return to JMU as a college freshman. He’s already been spending a lot of time on the campus through the program, which he says helped prepare him for college life.

“I probably never would have went to college, I think it would have been too much of a financial burden for me and my family,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think I ever would have done it if it wasn’t for this program.”

But, he says, the program has been about more than just being able to go to college debt-free. His high school, Broadway High, isn’t very diverse. The school is 87% white. Through Valley Scholars, Mitchell says he’s met a lot of people he otherwise never would have met.

“Getting to see different thoughts, processes, and hobbies...stuff like that,” Mitchell said.

JMU recently held a reception for the first cohort of Valley Scholar grads and their families. Dakota’s dad Dewayne Mitchell was there. He says he’s so incredibly proud and happy to see his son go to college. He’s the first in the family to do so.

“It’s just amazing to see how much he’s grown in the last five years,” Mitchell said. “Going from a little shy boy to a respected young man who knows his responsibilities and achievements.”

Valley Scholar Dakota Mitchell (far left) celebrates his graduation with father Dewayne and fiance Taylor Chaconas. (Photo: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

Mitchell will be living off-campus but will stay in touch with Valley Scholars friends like Timothy Custer, another Broadway High student who intends to live on-campus. The two text regularly, and are planning to hang out at least once a week once classes begin in the fall.

“Even though we go to the same school, we never really talked,” Custer said. “Like, I didn’t know he existed, honestly [before Valley Scholars]. Now, we’re like best friends.”

JMU hopes this first group will serve as mentors to current and future Valley Scholars. There are over 150 middle and high school students in the program pipeline now.

Since the program started, they’ve expanded the number of students in each cohort from 35 to 44, to include students from three additional middle schools in Harrisonburg, Augusta County, and Rockingham County.

“The school systems saw a need for students in those areas to have this opportunity,” Mooney said. But Mooney wishes the university could serve even more students through the Valley Scholars program.

“That's probably one of the most frustrating things that we face is that we know they'res lots of other students out there that we could benefit,” Mooney said. “But we don't have the capacity necessary to just support every student who could do this.”

According to SCHEV, there are only a handful of similar programs across Virginia. One is the  Rappahannock Scholars Program out of the University of Mary Washington. They’ve worked with cohorts of 25-30 first-generation students starting in 9th grade and throughout college since 2008.

Program Director Rita Thompson says they used to offer full-ride scholarships to Mary Washington to all Rappahannock Scholars, but two years ago they limited that to the top six scholars: one from each participating school. In 2017, the university launched  another initiative to help recruit and retain first-generation college students.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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