It was just a few days after prom when I had the opportunity to sit down in the office at Waynesboro High School and meet four students who were just days away from walking across the graduation stage and launching themselves into the exciting world of college.
Unlike many of their peers, these Waynesboro students, as James Madison University Valley Scholars, knew exactly what their next steps would be and the concrete plans that they had painstakingly molded and mapped out over the course of five years were unfolding before them.
These four — two young men and two young women — were pumped up, excited, and, admittedly, more than a little nervous about thoughts of leaving the comfort of family and friends in Waynesboro.
But first they had to catch up on the prom and share cell phone photos and experiences. Once that was done, they carved a little more than an hour from their busy schedules (there was, for instance, an important tennis match looming and a big AP English presentation), to try and distill the last five years into a few succinct thoughts.
Although Damillion Williams missed our meeting because of a flat tire, he was certainly part of the round-robin conversation that I had with his four peers who were sitting around the table. At the meeting to my left was Nigel Stewart, a confident young man with a huge grin. Not only is he the top seed on Waynesboro’s tennis team, but he is involved in school government. Next was Lily Robinson, a quiet and thoughtful student who plays the flute and piccolo. Then there is Alexandria “Lexi” Richardson, brimming with energy as she expresses a passion for music and a love of athletics. And, finally, on my right is Oscar Moreno, a curly-headed teen with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Oscar taught himself to cut hair by watching videos on-line and has had a hectic schedule in the days before prom as the “school barber.”
These four, plus Damillion, make up the first-ever cadre of Valley Scholars at Waynesboro. The Valley Scholars program, launched five years ago with the goal of selecting promising area middle school students whose parents did not have the opportunity to attend college, provides these “first generation, financially eligible students” with a nurturing program that prepares them for college. After completing an application and interview process in the seventh grade, students begin the program as eighth graders.
For the next five years, the students are mentored, tutored, and guided toward the goal of having a successful college experience. It is nearly a 10-year commitment and, as seniors just days from graduation, they are over halfway through.
The James Madison University program, available in the school districts of Augusta, Page, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties as well as the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Waynesboro, currently has about 190 scholars in the eighth through twelfth grade. But the five at Waynesboro are among 31 who graduate this month as the inaugural Valley Scholars class. The goal is to create college-ready students who are going to be successful at the next level. If those students choose to go onto JMU they receive a scholarship for the full four years of tuition at the university.
However, even those who do not choose JMU often receive scholarships and other financial assistance that makes obtaining a college degree a reality that they could never have achieved without the program.
“The idea is to create future leaders in our community,” said Shaun Mooney, the Director of the Valley Scholars Program and the one who set up the meeting for me. “That number of students in the area makes a real economic impact,” he added.
“My parents never completed college,” explains Lily. “They are happy to see me committed to something and grateful to see me obtain this kind of education.”
The others echo her remarks. Perhaps Oscar’s story is the most powerful. “My parents came from Mexico many years ago. There they struggled in big families. My dad went to the second grade and my mom finished the sixth grade. They are very proud of what I am doing,” he said.
“My family is so proud and grateful to know that I will be one of the first in the family to go to college and experience things that they were not able to do,” emphasized Lexi.
The program is not for the faint hearted. Students have to take an academic track schedule that would get them into James Madison University and that includes AP classes and college courses. They have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay in the program and a 3.2 GPA to go to JMU. They also have to meet several times a month with students from other schools in the program, be active in community service projects, attend a summer camp, and participate in cultural field trips.
Participation in community service projects and field trips broadens the students’ vision and provides them with diverse experiences. For the community projects across the years, students have worked at a sheltered workshop, a community garden, an animal shelter, and a nursing home.
Mooney and the group reminisced about Nigel’s experience at the nursing home where he spent two hours with a WWII veteran who could not speak, but could communicate by writing on a dry erase board.
“I enjoyed talking to him. He had a lot of experience and wisdom,” said Nigel.
Oscar remembered his “once in a lifetime opportunity” to travel with four Valley Scholars from other schools to Richmond where they met the city’s mayor, Levar Stoney.
“It was awesome. He actually graduated from JMU. I will always remember the advice he gave us that we can’t let people tell us what we can and can’t do.”
Were the last five years hard?
“Yes, in a good way,” they explained.
Was the extra work a burden? “Definitely not,” they added, noting that they took more challenging classes because of the program but their grades were better because of help they received from each other as well as from their mentors, and their tutors.
“I feel like it has shown me things and given me a chance for things. Without Valley Scholars I probably would have been home schooled and maybe I would have gone to Blue Ridge Community College. I didn’t even know AP classes existed and I ended up taking four AP classes,” said Lily.
Oscar chimed in: “Valley Scholars provided a great support system, especially when I was struggling with a problem. It was definitely very significant for me and helped me achieve a lot and be successful academically and to build my character.”
“Honestly,” explained Lexi, “I don’t see any of it as a burden. It kept us on the academic track, paving the road to our success. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have even thought about going to college.”
Nigel compared the program to a “driver’s assist.” “It just kept us going and gave us the knowledge and wisdom for success in high school and life in general. We were able to complete something that we wouldn’t have had the chance or the financial support tools to do without Valley Scholars.”
Has the program worked? Well if the four students I talked to are any indication of the success across the region, there’s no doubt about it. Without the program, maybe a couple of the four would have gone to college but with no plans, career path, and financial incentive the chances of success would have been tenuous.
“We have been working with these students for five years and have given them a lot of experiences. We have been tutoring them, mentoring them, and monitoring their grades and their class schedules, all to prepare them to be accepted at competitive colleges. In some ways we are pseudo parents, helping them make good decisions,” Mooney said.
“Our goal is to get them to college. If they come to JMU they get a great scholarship, but most get good scholarship and aid packages elsewhere as well because of their participation in this program. They should be able to come out of college with zero or very low college debt,” he added.
Now they have concrete goals and plans and they have a route to success. Damillion, for instance, will be going to James Madison University to get a degree that puts him on the career path of law enforcement.
Nigel is heading to Virginia State where he plans to major in political science and get into politics. “I hope to work in a legislative setting and influence policy. I’ve always been interested in politics, but once I was able to vote last year it really increased. I began seeing how people can help others on a large platform, both foreign and domestic,” he explained.
“I am going to Old Dominion,” said Lexi who will be majoring in criminal justice and minoring in music production. Two different and enjoyable classes — one in criminal justice and another in music appreciation — created her dilemma of which career path to choose. So, armed with the confidence from the Valley Scholars program, the young lady who probably would have been a high school drop-out, is shooting for the stars and choosing both paths. “I loved the music appreciation class and over the summer I started looking at different genres of music. Now I am writing my own songs and my own music and am passionate about this,” she said.
Two of the four students are going to JMU. Lilly plans to major in music composition and music education.
“I want to make music for movies, soundtracks, and video games and maybe be a band director,” she explained.
Oscar will major in business with an eye toward being an entrepreneur. “Valley Scholars helped us focus on different majors. Maybe I will own a restaurant or a barber shop,” he said with a smile.
Sometime later this summer, these four excited, energetic students will pack their bags and head into a new world as college freshman. Even with all of their planning and training the idea of leaving the world of Waynesboro and family is unsettling.
“I still haven’t processed it all,” says Lily. “We spent some time touring the JMU campus, but, honestly, it terrifies me to move. I have to move in on August 20 and my birthday is August 21. My mom has been saying how sad she will be since last October.”
“Yeah,” Oscar chimed in. “My mom’s already crying.”
“I am so family oriented that it will be hard,” Nigel said. Lexi added: “I just know that I will get homesick and it will be 12 o’clock at night and I won’t be able to sleep.”
Despite the understandable butterflies in the stomach, they are ready and prepared for the next step in the journey.
“We have been working with these students for five years and we have dealt with everything. They now have much higher goals and are ready,” Mooney said, adding that he plans to stay in touch with the students in college and perhaps get them to mentor some of the up-and-coming Valley Scholars still in high school.
Clearly the four teens sitting around the table are ready for the next chapter in their story. Their words sum up the success of the program better than anything else that I could write.
“We have done a lot of networking and created social bonds that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this program. And we wouldn’t have the knowledge of different resources that will help us. My path [after high school] would have been very different,” said Nigel.
“I feel like it has shown us we could do more than we thought we could. I didn’t think about college very much,” added Lily.
“Without Valley Scholars, my path would have been different. For sure I wouldn’t have gone straight to a four-year college,” noted Oscar.
“Valley Scholars has meant everything to me.” Lexi exclaimed. “It gave me an opportunity to further my education and grow in character. Without them I would have dropped out of high school and would not have motivated myself,” she added.