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Back in 2005, Centennial Scholar Francesca Leigh-Davis’s aspirations included completing a degree in psychology and pursuing a career in substance abuse counseling. As a recipient of Madison’s prestigious full-ride Centennial Scholarship, the Tidewater area native was known for her superior academic performance, her school spirit, and for her love of the city of Harrisonburg. What many did not know, however, was her constant struggle with family issues back home. Now, after a six-year hiatus from JMU, her dream of graduating from college is finally becoming a reality.
“The problems have always existed,” said Leigh-Davis, recalling the reasons that she was forced to leave the school and life she loved. This included a range of personal family issues, as well as a traumatic event that occurred during her freshman year. “Our house burned down back home, we lost everything.”
To help her grandparents, who raised her, Leigh-Davis made constant trips back home. Taking time away from her academics and social life back in Harrisonburg, she cites this incident as the beginning of an unexpected downward spiral.
From then on, Leigh-Davis fought a constant battle to stay in school, despite several unforeseen obstacles. During her junior year, she became pregnant and learned her grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was given three months to live. “Socially and academically, I felt completely overwhelmed,” she said, “my grades had fallen, and I decided that before I fell too far behind, I should leave [school].”
Though she made trips to Smithfield, VA three times a week to help her ailing grandfather with their family real estate business, Leigh-Davis decided to stay in Harrisonburg with her child. “I had fallen in love with the area, and had every intention of returning back to JMU.”
Life threw another curveball the following August. “Right before I was going to start classes again, my grandfather passed away,” Leigh-Davis said. “I knew it was up to me to keep our family’s business going, so I packed up myself and my baby and went home.”
At this point, her goal of coming back to complete her degree was a fading dream. “…it became painfully clear that I would not be returning to JMU in the near future,” Leigh-Davis said. That was, until her grandmother received a letter from JMU’s Outreach & Engagement office in May of 2013.
“I was sitting at a different university filling out an application,” said Leigh-Davis. “My grandmother called and said the President of JMU was inviting me to ‘Return to Madison’ to complete my education. I called the number, and they told me it was true. I couldn’t believe it.”
Leigh-Davis is just one of 47 students that reenrolled at Madison this fall as part of a statewide push to encourage adults to complete their bachelor’s degree at four-year Virginia institutions. Since its inception in 1977, JMU’s Adult Degree Program (ADP) has worked to educate and enlighten students beyond the traditional college age. To further this initiative, JMU Outreach & Engagement launched a new campaign in August of 2012 known as “Return to Madison.” Funded by a $50,000 grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, this program aimed to identify students who were previously enrolled at JMU between 1995 and 2008 and earned at least 30 college credits. These individuals, residing in many areas of Virginia, were then invited to come back to Madison to finish their degree through the Adult Degree Program.
Initially, the registrar’s office identified about 6,200 candidates that were eligible for the program. After eliminating individuals who had already completed their degrees at other institutions, more than 1,100 candidates remained. Once that number was determined, Outreach & Engagement began their marketing strategy.
“More than 100 students have responded so far,” said Pamela Hamilton, Director of the Adult Degree Program for Outreach & Engagement. “We used the grant money to pay for postage to send out customized letters to each student as well as a card from President Alger.” These letters identified various aspects of students’ previous educational experience, including former majors and the number of classes left in order to complete a degree.
ADP was also able to use the grant money to purchase software that pulled relevant employment information from online job postings. “We were able to actually include employment information for their area,” said Hamilton. “This included skills, openings, and degrees necessary, so we could pull all of that information together and help students decide on an appropriate area of study.”
ADP students are provided one-on-one guidance to develop a curriculum that will meet their academic goals. For some, this means only a few classes stand in their way of receiving a bachelor’s degree. Opportunities to complete these course requirements are available both on campus and through online programs designed by James Madison faculty specifically for the Adult Degree Program.
“This initiative was far more successful than we had anticipated,” said Hamilton. “A total of 47 students have returned to complete their degree, and we didn’t expect that any of the students would graduate in the one-year time period of the grant. However, six students actually have, and three more will graduate in December 2013.”
Though the grant ended, Outreach & Engagement will continue to reach out to students inviting them to complete their degree through the Adult Degree Program.
For her first semester, Leigh-Davis is enrolled in a series of communication courses, with the intention of also completing a business management track next fall. As for the program, she could not express the magnitude of her appreciation. “When I had to write a statement for my application back, I was in tears. Not because what happened was hurtful, but because, regardless of what happened, I’m back at JMU. I can’t even explain how big that is for me. A college degree was never out of the question. To be able to come back to JMU and complete my education, it’s like the best Christmas ever.”
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