JMU celebrates graduation of first Valley Scholars cohort

Published: May. 26, 2023 at 11:55 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - James Madison University is celebrating the graduation of the first ever cohort from its Valley Scholars program. 17 students from around the Valley graduated from JMU this spring becoming the first college graduates in their families.

“It was such a thrill to see that first cohort actually graduating from college because we had walked with them literally since the end of seventh grade so we’ve known these students for over 9 years. It has been so incredible to watch their growth,” said JMU President Dr. Jonathan Alger.

The Valley Scholars program was a vision of Alger’s when he first arrived at JMU. The program targets middle school students from the Valley’s seven public school districts with academic potential who would be first generation college students and come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

“The model was based on intervening early enough in a students development that you can make sure they take the right courses in high school so that they’re academically prepared for a college level experience whether that’s at James Madison University or another college or university,” said Alger.

Students who are admitted into the program begin in eighth grade and continue to work in their cohort throughout high school.

“We walk with them every step of the way. They work as a cohort starting in eighth grade and all through high school, they’re together, they come to campus at JMU frequently. JMU students serve as their mentors and go into the middle schools and high schools,” said Alger.

If students in the program maintain the required grades throughout high school and attend JMU the university provides them with a full scholarship.

“So many of them, they’re now going into graduate school or jobs that they never even dreamed about when they were in middle school but this program opened their eyes to all sorts of possibilities. That’s the magic of it, it gives students hope, it gives them ideas, and accountability every step of the way,” said Alger.

The scholarships are provided by the university and by more than 1,430 private donors, who have invested more than $5 million into the program. Alger said that there are a number of reasons for the program’s success.

“They learn about things like how to take standardized tests, how to fill out college applications, how to develop a resume, and how to interviews. So there are a lot of skills that we develop beyond just the pure academic content. We know these students are smart, we know that they’re capable but we also know that they’re going to face different types of challenges than other students might face,” he said.

Alger said the amount of support students in the program receive is absolutely vital.

“There are people that care about them, that believe in them, that know that they can do it and are there to support them. That’s so important, education at the end of the day is all about relationships and mentoring that’s what students like this need to have the door opened to these types of opportunities,” he said.

The program has continued to grow over the years, around 85 Valley Scholars are currently enrolled at JMU with over 200 more already in the pipeline at local schools.