Investing in their roots

Alumnae create scholarship for first-gen students from Appalachia

JMU News

by Jamie Marsh


SUMMARY: Donors Sue Cumpston (’82) and Lori Mowen (’80) say education is key to ending poverty.

In the summer of 1978, Grease was the word and Trapper Keepers were the new, must-have school supply. A year at JMU cost about $3,000 (tuition, room/board and books) for out-of-state student Lori Mowen (’80), which she earned by working 16-hour days inside a hot Corning Ware plant. While learning to balance campus life — Accounting classes, field hockey, new friends — Mowen also needed a substantial paycheck. 

“It was hard,” she said. “But it’s harder now. A first-generation student like me, they’re already coming in behind the financial eight ball. There are few summer jobs that could cover today’s costs, no matter how many shifts they pick up.”

Mowen’s future wife, Sue Cumpston (’82), arrived as a first-generation freshman that fall, facing her own set of challenges. “I was totally overwhelmed,” Cumpston remembered. She moved from a rural West Virginia home without indoor plumbing or hot water, determined to change her life in Harrisonburg. “At first, I was just thrilled with the accommodations,” she said with a laugh. Cumpston was a bright student with big dreams who punched her ticket to college with the help of the fledgling Pell Grant program.

“I had a belief that this was going to pay off someday,” Cumpston said. “I remember walking down the steps toward the railroad tracks by Godwin Hall after my first exams. That was the moment when I knew I’d made a good choice. I felt I’d learned more in a semester at JMU than I had in my entire high school career.”

Her choice did pay off. After meeting at JMU, Mowen and Cumpston said their Madison Experiences enabled the lives they would build together: advanced degrees, stable careers and a love of international travel. “We are proof that education is one key to breaking the cycle of poverty,” Cumpston said. 

“And it’s more than academics,” Mowen added. “JMU is also where I got exposure to different people from different backgrounds. It was a place to explore myself, and it’s where I decided who I wanted to be and how I wanted to see the world.”

For years after the couple graduated, they talked about helping others in the same situation. “We’d get the letters and magazines from JMU, and we always thought, ‘You know, we really want to do more,’” Mowen said. Now, they’ve started a scholarship for first-generation students from the Appalachian region. “I just wish we’d done it sooner,” Mowen said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding.” 

Alyssa Tomlin (’24)

This year’s recipient, junior Alyssa Tomlin, “definitely has the work ethic needed to stick with this and make change happen,” Cumpston said. During her sophomore year, Tomlin worked 25 hours per week in addition to commuting more than an hour for classes. 

“I’m so thankful to have scholarship support, and to have met Lori and Sue,” Tomlin said. “They’re such amazing people and completely get where I’m coming from.” Tomlin’s goals are similar to those of her mentors: to earn a Business degree and eventually travel the world.  

This year, Mowen and Cumpston will visit Antarctica (the last continent they haven’t explored) and begin planning a study-abroad scholarship. “Being able to help JMU students has made us feel like we are making a contribution to our global community,” Mowen said. “We take to heart the challenge of Being the Change we want to see in the world.”

Population data courtesy of Appalachian Regional Commission

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Published: Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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