Local first-generation college students experience a “first,” earn diplomas

JMU News

Every year thousands of students graduate from institutions of higher education and celebrate the challenges they overcame, friendships they forged and the diplomas that will take them places. 

This year, 17 graduates from James Madison University and the Shenandoah Valley will be the first in their families to walk across the stage and earn a college degree, and the first cohort of Valley Scholars to graduate. 

JMU President Jonathan R. Alger had a vision when he came to JMU. He wanted to create a program that would inspire rising high school students from the local area to envision themselves at college, specifically JMU, and provide a pathway to fulfilling their desire to continue learning. 

In 2014, the first cohort of local middle school students was offered participation in the program. If they took the most advanced academics available, plus monthly JMU programming, then their tuition would be paid at JMU. 

“I am incredibly proud of the first cohort of our Valley Scholars to be graduating from JMU this weekend,” said President Jonathan Alger. “This marks a milestone in the history of our institution, where we’ve created local community engagement, access and affordability and student success. These graduates have the drive and determination to continue opening doors and paving their own way.” 

Academically, the current graduating cohort is an accomplished group. Several students have completed the JMU Honors program, participated in a study abroad experiential learning trip, or presented at conferences, and some are even serving as mentors for the middle schoolers just starting the Valley Scholars program.

About Valley Scholars

The Valley Scholars program caters to first-generation, financially eligible students from seven local public school districts. These students must demonstrate motivation and academic promise throughout middle school and high school. To gain admission into the program, students undergo an application process and commence their participation in 8th grade. The program's central objective is to nurture a thirst for knowledge and cultivate essential skills, enabling students to attain the academic excellence required for college enrollment. 

Today, 84 Valley Scholars attend JMU with 207 more in the pipeline. Their scholarships, if they choose to attend JMU, are provided by the university and by more than 1,430 private donors, who have invested more than $5 million in these local students.

“It is our long-term hope that many of these students will eventually go back within their home communities to serve as mentors and continue the legacy of this program,” added Alger. “While JMU may have been an avenue for these students to put in the hard work to achieve their dreams, these students have already made inspiring and indelible contributions to the university through their presence, perseverance and commitment.” 

Additional information on the Valley Scholars program can be found here


Media Resources

James Madison University set out to help 35 middle-schoolers become the first in their families to attend college. Would they succeed? -Washington Post 

The Way Forward – Valley Scholars program offers in-need locals a path to college -Virginia Business 

First Cohort of Valley Scholars Kids to Attend JMU -Daily News-Record 

Proof of concept -Madison magazine




Media contact: Mary-Hope Vass, vassmg@jmu.edu

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Published: Friday, May 19, 2023

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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