Overcoming the obstacles

Some Valley Scholars endured hardships on the road to graduation


Valley Scholar Ayam Ali

Ayam Ali

High school: Harrisonburg

When Ayam was in second grade, a bomb exploded in her home city of Kirkuk, Iraq. Her family, fearing for their safety, moved to Turkey, where Ayam was homeschooled for a year, then to the U.S. in 2009. “We had a family friend … who suggested that we come here to Virginia. At first we moved around a little bit, then we finally settled in Harrisonburg.” In elementary school, Ayam had to learn English and adjust to a new culture. “In Iraq, there was the teacher, a chalkboard, some chalk. That was pretty much it. Everything was done by hand. Everything was written down. And our textbooks, they weren’t really the best. Coming here, it was just such a big change. Everything was digital … and colorful. And there were so many different activities.” In high school, Ayam medaled in dance, was part of HHS’ One Act drama team, ran track, and was the varsity boys basketball team manager. She also was a member of the National Honor Society. Her parents have always emphasized the importance of education as a ticket to a better life. She looks up to her older sister, Sanarea, a Centennial Scholar at JMU.

On coming to JMU: “I applied to other schools, but JMU was always my top choice. It’s just home at this point. I don’t see myself as anything other than a Duke.”

Anticipated major: Computer science

On Valley Scholars: “I don’t have any doubt that Valley Scholars prepared us and pushed us to do everything that they knew we could do. We just didn’t know we could do it yet. … It has definitely shaped me into a better person and provided me with a lot of things that I can look back on and say I’m so glad I did this.”

Amy Cortés Valley Scholar Amy Cortes

High school: Fort Defiance

Amy’s father and mother, both Mexican immigrants, are committed to ensuring that their children receive a quality education. “They’ve been building a house in Mexico. That’s what they’ve been investing their money in. They want to move back there after I graduate.” Amy was born in New York City, but after 9/11 her family moved to Rockingham County. She has two half-sisters in New York and an older brother who works locally as a welder and recently became a father. In school, while many of her friends looked forward to graduating and starting a family, Amy had bigger plans. “My older sisters, they did well in school. One is now a child psychologist and the other is a [registered nurse]. … I wanted to have my own career one day.” In tenth grade, Amy learned that her father, who was working for a roofing company at the time, had fallen from a height of about 30 feet and suffered multiple facial fractures as well as broken wrists and fingers. He was in the hospital for two weeks, then had to undergo occupational therapy. The stress and worry took a toll on the family, and Amy’s grades began to slip. However, her father encouraged her not to lose focus. Amy went with him during his therapy sessions, which sparked her interest in the field.

On coming to JMU: “Growing up in Fort Defiance, I’ve always liked JMU. When I started Valley Scholars, they told us not to have tunnel vision for JMU. But obviously … bringing us on campus and having program days and stuff like that definitely helped. … That’s probably going to make the transition of leaving my home and family [for college] a lot easier.” Amy plays the clarinet and enjoys tennis—both activities she wants to continue at JMU. She will also be a member of the Honors College.

Anticipated major: Kinesiology

On Valley Scholars: “I remember when they did the interview for Valley Scholars, they asked me about my main goal and what did I want to accomplish. I remember answering, ‘I just want to make my parents proud.’ … After all these years, you know, I think I’ve accomplished that.”

Timothy Custer Valley Scholar Tim Custer

High school: Broadway

Timothy admits he probably would not have gone to college if not for the Valley Scholars program. Growing up, his stepfather worked in a tire shop. “He was my main role model. My older brother was the exact same way.” In sixth grade, Timothy suffered the first of two concussions when the car carrying him, his mother and two younger brothers was struck from behind at a stoplight. Then in ninth grade, he was hit in the head in the same spot by a Frisbee in gym class. The incident sidelined him for more than six months. “I had to learn how to walk again. I went to speech therapy. … My memory was awful. I couldn’t remember my phone number.” Timothy’s grandfather would take him to Walmart to practice pushing a shopping cart to regain his strength and balance. “When I finally came back [to school], they would only let me come for half a day, every other day.” Eventually, with the help of Valley Scholars, Timothy regained his academic footing as well. “I did well in school before, but the program motivated me to do so much better.” Following his junior year, he participated in Boys State, a summer leadership and citizenship program sponsored by the American Legion.

On coming to JMU: Timothy will enter JMU as a Centennial Scholar and a member of the Honors College. “I didn’t want to put the burden of paying for college on my family,” he says. Tim has a variety of interests, including computer science, biology and politics. He also is interested in studying abroad and playing club tennis.

Anticipated major: Undecided

On Valley Scholars: “They gave us so many opportunities that we [otherwise] wouldn’t have had.” Some of Timothy's favorite activities included a hiking trip at Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park last summer and shadowing a JMU student for a day. He appreciates the support that Valley Scholars receive in the program and the many friends he has made along the way.

Pierre Mbala Valley Scholar Pierre Mbala

High school: Harrisonburg

Pierre was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but his family moved to the U.S. when he was 3. As a child, he learned basic English by watching TV and playing while his older brothers were at school and his parents were at work. When Pierre was in elementary school, his family shuffled around Northern Virginia before finally settling in Harrisonburg. His parents emphasized education, and a few of his brothers earned scholarships to attend college. “I’m very fortunate to have them to look up to.” For Pierre, the Valley Scholars program came with high expectations. “I knew I had to perform. I had to put my best foot forward.” During his junior year, though, he had a momentary lapse in judgment that put his future in jeopardy. One night he was with a group that stole items from a local convenience store. “I knew what I had done was wrong. And I saw that everything I had worked for in coming to this country, everything my parents had helped me with, the scholarship—I put all that at risk.” Fortunately, Pierre was assigned to a restorative justice program through the FairField Center in Harrisonburg. The program set him straight and actually inspired him to want to help young people avoid making similar mistakes. “I feel like I’ve been empowered, and speaking up … is something I need to do for those who don’t have a voice.” Pierre sells jewelry from his native Congo and donates the proceeds to help children in crisis there. After earning a college degree, he plans to return to the central African country to help with its development.

On coming to JMU: “It’s been a blessing to go through the things I went through last year and just get stronger in my faith. JMU will be my home for the next four years, and I plan on continuing to grow in faith and knowledge.” Pierre played football in high school and wants to try club rugby at JMU.

Anticipated major: Engineering

On Valley Scholars: “The program really made me feel like anything was possible. … And the scholars, we grew, not just as people who are goal oriented on getting an education, but also as a friend group.”

Joshua Morris Valley Scholar Joshua Morris

High school: Stonewall Jackson

Joshua was in ninth grade when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Being on the autism spectrum posed developmental and social challenges. “I’ve always had speech and handwriting problems, and in elementary school I had trouble getting along with other people. I had a bad temper and used to interrupt my teachers in class.” After the diagnosis, “it wasn’t like flipping a switch,” he said. “I just got extra help.” Valley Scholars provided a lift, too, by offering structure, support and resources. “I used to get pretty good grades. But sometimes I would turn stuff in late and things like that. And you can’t have that when you’re in the program. Early on, my dad and my stepmom were always on me — ‘Josh, make sure you do this.’ … Then later on in high school, I learned to push myself.” He credits Valley Scholars for introducing him to JMU and various fields of study. “They’re kind of showing you, ‘Look at the all the stuff that you can do if you really apply yourself.’” For Joshua, a visit to the College of Integrated Science and Engineering made quite an impression. “I’d wanted to do engineering my whole life. I’ve always taken things apart and thought of cool ideas and weird stuff.” In his spare time, he enjoys video games, animation, guitar, books and chess.

On coming to JMU: “If you had told someone when I was in eighth or ninth grade … that I [would be] accepted to James Madison University, they probably wouldn’t believe you. Or if you had told them that I had given a presentation in front of a bunch of people … they probably would have laughed at you. Because I didn’t have the ability to do that back then.”

Anticipated major: Engineering

On Valley Scholars: “I would tell someone thinking about the program, ‘This is a really great opportunity, so take full advantage of it because you’re not going to regret it. Sometimes it’s hard, but as long as you just keep with it, then you’ll be OK.’” Joshua also credits the program with improving his social skills and making new friends.

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Published: Thursday, July 25, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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