Madison grad grateful for opportunities offered through Valley Scholars program

JMU in the Community

by Josette Keelor

(L-R): Valley Scholars graduate Ayam Ali (’23) and older sister Sanarea Ali (’20). Photograph by Steve Aderton (’19)

SUMMARY: First-generation graduate and Iraq native Ayam Ali (’23) credits Valley Scholars with pushing her to achieve things she didn’t know she could do along her pathway to college and greater success.

Graduating from JMU this month was a bittersweet experience for 22-year-old Harrisonburg resident Ayam Ali. “I definitely am really happy about everything that I’ve achieved and all the support that I’ve had over the years,” she said, “but it’s also a little sad ’cause I’m leaving.”

A first-generation student from Kirkuk, Iraq, Ali moved with her family to the Shenandoah Valley when she was in third grade. Although she was a devoted student whose parents stressed education, Ali said college wasn’t always a given for her. “I didn’t grow up knowing what I wanted to be,” she said.

Plus, she’d experienced a lot of tumult in having to leave her native Iraq in second grade when a bomb exploded in her home city, forcing the family to Turkey, where she was home-schooled for a year, and then to the U.S. In Harrisonburg, she learned English and acclimated to a new culture. All the while, her parents stressed that education was the key to a better life, but Ali wasn’t sure how they would make that happen.

Valley Scholar Ayam Ali spoke at
Ayam Ali speaks at the May 4 graduation celebration for the first cohort of Valley Scholars, who began their journey in 2014. 

“I thought that I wanted to go to college,” she explained. But financially, it was too big of a concept for her to consider before seventh grade. That’s when she learned about JMU’s Valley Scholars program. Her parents encouraged her to apply, and she was accepted into the program that would change the course of her educational career.

Valley Scholars zeroes in on dedicated students who display financial need and have parents or guardians who didn’t attend or graduate from a four-year college. Participants in the program attend regular events and activities and must maintain a minimum GPA and complete required coursework. If they accomplish all the program requirements, are accepted into JMU and want to attend, they’ll receive a four-year scholarship.

Valley Scholars “prepared and pushed me to do things I didn’t know I could do,” Ali said. “The field trips and summer programs shaped me into a better person and opened so many opportunities that I never would have had access to if it wasn’t for this program.”

Her older sister, Sanarea (’20), studied Engineering at JMU through the Centennial Scholars Program, which aims to provide opportunities for transformational students from underrepresented backgrounds.

For Ali, some of the biggest benefits of the Valley Scholars program were the support she received and the connections she forged. “I’ve definitely built a lot of lifelong relationships and friendships,” she said. “That’s support that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

College wasn’t always what she expected, especially when students, faculty and staff were sent home in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But after returning to campus, she said, “It definitely was the experience I was hoping for.”

A Computer Science major with a minor in History, Ali received an internship as an associate manufacturing automatic engineer at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, in Elkton, Virginia, where she continued working full time during the summer and part time during the school year, even after the internship ended.

On May 4, Ali spoke at a graduation celebration for the first cohort of Valley Scholars, who began their journey in 2014. 

“Looking back on [college], I wish I had a little more fun,” Ali said, “But I have no regrets. I did everything the best I can, and I learned everything that I could along the way.”

Ali was accepted to graduate school at Virginia Tech and received three job offers before choosing to work in Information Technology at JMU.

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Published: Friday, May 19, 2023

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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