Realizing the dream

JMU welcomes first class of Valley Scholars

JMU in the Community
Valley Scholars laughing
Members of the first class of Valley Scholars share a laugh during the Senior Celebration ceremony in Grafton-Stovall Theatre in May.

SUMMARY: As the Valley Scholars program enters its sixth year, members of the first graduating class are prepared to turn their dreams of a college education into reality.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

In his inauguration speech in March 2013, President Jonathan R. Alger presented a bold, new vision for JMU to become the national model for the engaged university: engaged with ideas and the world. With the launch of the Valley Scholars program the following year, it was clear that this vision also applied to the university’s own backyard.

While at Rutgers University, Alger had helped found a college-readiness program for underprivileged students in the local community who might otherwise not dare to dream of continuing their education beyond high school. Having witnessed firsthand the difference the program made in these young people’s lives, he set out to launch a similar program at JMU.

Meet five scholars who endured hardships on the road to graduation.
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“JMU has a strong commitment to access and inclusion for individuals of all backgrounds,” Alger said at a kickoff event for Valley Scholars in 2014, adding that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are generally less likely to attend college, in large part due to a lack of academic preparation and support.

From the outset, JMU worked with administrators, teachers and guidance counselors in neighboring school districts to identify potential participants. The university would provide programming and support for these students and their families beginning in eighth grade and continuing throughout high school. If they completed the program and were accepted to JMU, a full-tuition scholarship would be waiting for them.

Valley Scholars at Oakview
President Alger welcomes the group to a preevent reception at his home.

Five years later, that vision has become a reality.

Twenty-six of the 32 members of the first graduating class of Valley Scholars are set to enter JMU as freshmen in the fall. The remaining scholars will continue their education at other colleges and universities in Virginia.

Along the way, they have completed rigorous course work, maintained a minimum GPA requirement, performed community service, developed good study habits, and honed their teamwork and leadership skills. The program has opened their eyes to all that college has to offer, from academics and campus life to internships and career resources.  

That spirit of possibility was evident during the senior celebration at JMU in May.

“President Alger has always emphasized that we dream big,” said student speaker Kaitlyn Good, who plans to study music education at JMU. “All of us … are now preparing to embark on a new beginning. We are entirely prepared to turn our dreams into reality.”

“Ever since I became a Valley Scholar, I’ve been able to imagine myself taking a stroll on the Quad to the Music Building for class and anticipating game days with 535 of my closest friends in the Marching Royal Dukes,” Good said. “More importantly, however, I’ve been able to envision myself pursuing a lifetime of teaching music to school-aged children … and becoming the best me I can possibly be.”

Valley Scholars with Xavia
Xavia Gary ('15), the program's first Engagement Fellow (center), returned to campus to celebrate with some of the students he mentored in the program.

When they begin their first semester at JMU, this group of scholars will have the benefit of having worked with JMU faculty in university classrooms and labs, attended family events in campus conference rooms and dining halls, practiced and performed on JMU’s stages, pitched and presented in its boardrooms, and studied and collaborated in the libraries and Student Success Center.

They also will have a support network of more than two dozen of their closest friends.

“The level of perseverance and resilience that this first group demonstrated was special,” said the program’s director, Shaun Mooney. “They had to wade through all the unknowns as we were figuring out what was working and if we needed to make adjustments. And I think they really bonded with each other. They had to if they were going to get through it.” 

Overcoming challenges
The journey was not always easy.

On top of their normal coursework, the program days at JMU, the workshops, the summer camps and the group outings, some scholars had to deal with family issues. Others had health problems. Still others made poor decisions, not unlike many teenagers. These bumps in the road could have pushed individual scholars off track—and perhaps derailed their futures. 

But resources and support are integral to Valley Scholars. It’s why, in addition to academic coaches and mentors, the program staff includes a dedicated team of social workers.

“If there’s one thing this first group [of scholars] has taught me,” Mooney said, “it’s that if you really want to change people’s lives, it has to be a long-term investment.”

Part of that investment involves educating and empowering family members to help their children succeed in school and achieve their dream of going to college. Valley Scholars offers family programming that emphasizes the importance of offering support and encouragement; keeping the lines of communication open with the scholars’ teachers and guidance counselors; checking their grades regularly; making sure they are mentally and physically healthy; and scheduling.  

Valley Scholars Mooney
“The level of perseverance and resilience that this first group demonstrated was special,” program director Shaun Mooney said.

“It’s been amazing,” said Toni Custer, whose son, Timothy, will enroll at JMU in the fall. “He and I have done a lot together in the program … which is great. And it’s shown the whole family what’s possible. For his younger siblings, it gives them someone to look up to.”

Another incoming Duke, Amy Cortés, said her parents were impressed with the amount of attention paid to each scholar as well as the program’s impact. “They have seen how much it has affected me and how my mindset has changed,” she said, “and how I’ve become interested in wanting so much more out of life.”

Mooney believes some of the students in the first cohort would have gone on to college without Valley Scholars. “But I believe all of them had better outcomes than they otherwise would have,” he said. “They are better prepared.”

The scholars agree.

“I think I probably would have found my way to college eventually,” said Ayam Ali, a Harrisonburg High School graduate who plans to study computer science at JMU. “But it would have been a lot more difficult.”

Valley Scholars - Nigel Stewart
Valley Scholar Nigel Stewart converses with donors Leon and Beverly ('68) Harris.

Future growth
The Valley Scholars program continues to grow. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, the program will boast 196 students at 25 area schools, supported by four full-time and six part-time staff members, a JMU Engagement Fellow, student interns and countless volunteers in the community. 

With up to 44 new students joining the ranks every year, Valley Scholars requires significant investment to cover operating costs and endow scholarships.

Students like these, they’re going to pay it forward,” said donor Lois Forbes (’64). “They’re going to make other kids in the [Shenandoah] Valley understand what they can be. You want to be a part of something like that. You want to help somebody else who hasn’t had the same chances you’ve had.”

Valley Scholars Buracker and Cortes
Noah Buracker and Amy Cortés are among the 26 Valley Scholars graduates who will enter JMU as freshmen in the fall.

At the senior celebration, graduate Noah Buracker thanked program officials and donors in attendance for their investment.

“All those years ago, in eighth grade, as we were stumbling around trying to figure out what we were going to do in life, trying to figure out if college was the right decision and in our best interest … you looked at us and said, ‘I want you. I believe you are worth it.’ All these years later, I think that we are worth it.”

“Let me tell you, we will pay you back,” Buracker added, “maybe not right away, but in the form of a better world. … I know for a fact that we’re going to step out into the world and do great things because you allowed us to do that.”

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Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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