Joshua Morris (’24) grew up just 25 miles north of Wilson Hall in picturesque Mount Jackson, Virginia, but he never imagined stepping foot on campus. “Me? At JMU? Are you kidding me?” he said. “I can’t even say that I dreamed of going to college someday. It was farther away than a dream.”
Not many other people pegged the Minecraft-obsessed 12-year-old as a future Duke either — certainly not his family or school personnel — but he was a perfect candidate for President Jonathan R. Alger’s groundbreaking program, Valley Scholars. “There were two sides to Josh,” said Shaun Mooney (’98, ’03M), executive director of the Center for First-Generation Students. “His teachers saw a kid lacking general interest, with trauma in his background, but Josh was brilliant — taking apart old laptops and rebuilding them for fun.”
That’s how Morris was handpicked to join the first cohort of Valley Scholars, Alger’s presidential initiative challenging local students from low-income households to become the first in their families to attend college. Alger’s goal was “to increase access to JMU, unlock the true potential of students from less advantaged backgrounds and start in our own backyard.”
In 2014, 35 local middle-schoolers were offered a deal: If they completed the ambitious new program — taking the most advanced academics available plus monthly JMU programming like STEM experiments and writing workshops — then their tuition would be paid at JMU. In May, 17 of those students are on track to earn a degree, with nine more graduating within a semester or two. The program is working — and growing. Today, 84 Valley Scholars attend JMU with 207 more in the pipeline. Their scholarships are being provided by the university and by 1,435 private donors to the Unleashed campaign who invested more than $5 million.
But eight years ago, preteen Morris was skeptical: “Are these people for real?”
From 8th-grader to JMU
Over the next five years, things got real. High school coursework was easy enough, Morris said, but other parts of the program were “super hard.” He was freshly inspired on two special occasions: touring the College of Integrated Science and Technology and meeting Alger, who “really seemed positive this was all going to be worth it.” Still, there were hiccups along the way.
In 10th grade, Morris was done — or so he thought. He’d “messed up” in a way he believed was irreparable, but the Valley Scholars team intervened. “I was on top of a house repairing a roof on a Saturday morning,” Mooney recalled. “Josh’s dad calls to tell me they’re leaving Valley Scholars.” Mooney sat down on the roof for the length of the call, listening and challenging them to stay on board. “One thing most of these kids learn during their time in Valley Scholars is resiliency,” he said. “One failure does not mean the end.”
Morris completed the high school program alongside 31 of his peers. Of those, 26 earned admission to JMU and five matriculated at other universities. The fundamental goal of getting them to college was achieved.
Living the dream
“This program began as a dream,” Alger said. “And the remarkable success of the first cohort proved that if we can get to students early enough in their lives, and give them the tools and support to prepare them for college, they can and will succeed and thrive.”
During that moment of celebration, JMU was also busy fortifying the support base. National research indicates that first-generation students (those whose parents have not attended college) are missing not just funding, but also valuable “cultural capital” that helps them navigate higher education — everything from reading a syllabus accurately to getting along with a persnickety roommate. For Valley Scholars participants, this was evident as soon as they arrived at JMU. “We’ve had a few students show up alone for move-in day their first year,” Mooney said. “Their families want to be supportive, but they either have to work that day or just don’t think they’ll be of any help without knowledge of residence halls or campus life.”
For Morris, move-in day was so overwhelming it became a family joke. “My dad and I laugh about it a lot now because basically he drops me off at Jennings Hall with a quick hug, but then I realize I’m all alone and literally have no clue what to do. So I just take a nice, long shower — in the middle of the day.”
Relationships are key
The Valley Scholars team learned to adapt quickly, deciding to be available for each student, as long as needed. “We know them very well,” Mooney said. “I get texts and emails all the time: How does dining work? How do I buy a car? Can you be a job reference? Can I drop a class if it’s too hard? We try to answer them all.” He said many Valley Scholars participants are like other first-generation students he sees on campus: on the edge of quitting.
The answer for not giving up? “Relationships,” Mooney said. From middle school through college graduation, they are offered guidance from professional and peer mentors. “That’s been the key. People want to know: Why is JMU’s formula for Valley Scholars fundamentally stronger than similar programs? Relationships.”
It’s working. Among these students are future doctors and software developers, with Biology and Computer Information Systems their most common majors; one-third are on the President’s or Dean’s list; five are in the Honors College; and their average GPA of 3.1 is a notch above their peers.
CS major Morris even earned a spot in the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, run by the U.S. Department of State. “I literally cried because I was so happy,” he said. “And so nervous.” As soon as international COVID-19 restrictions began to lift, he was on a plane to Europe. “My uncle dropped me off at the airport, and again I found myself alone and about to have a panic attack. But I’ve learned not to beat myself up; I just keep moving forward. The next thing I know I’m in Denmark, Rome and finally on a train to the southern tip of Italy.” By the end of the summer, Morris was speaking conversational Italian, now a polyglot fluent in Spanish and several coding languages. “It was daunting, but I did it. And I want to do it again.”
Expanding a model of excellence
As the first Valley Scholars stare down their final semesters of college, Alger said his vision has become a proven model of excellence: “We know this is life-transforming. It changes the trajectory of an individual’s life, and it impacts their family and their community. [First lady] Mary Ann and I believe strongly in this program, and it is one of our highest priorities in terms of our own time and treasure as we support JMU.”
Alger’s enthusiasm and leadership has inspired others to begin investing as well, including Dave (’91) and Marcy (’91) Kozlowski. “When we first heard about the program from President Alger about six years ago,” Dave said, “we looked at each other and were like, ‘We’re in!’” The total cost to fund scholarships for the first five cohorts of Valley Scholars has been about $7.5 million, divided between university funding and private donors like the Kozlowskis. They say it’s been “fulfilling to see these students come to JMU and become well equipped and on their way to being engaged citizens.”
As more cohorts make their way to college admission, the promise of scholarships is critical to stabilizing the program, and the need for private philanthropy will continue. Local philanthropist Bill Holtzman, owner of Mount Jackson-based Holtzman Oil Corp., is also on board. “I’m very impressed,” he said. “For the money spent, I get the biggest return that I can imagine. I get to help kids in the central Shenandoah Valley and help them in a way I believe will have a significant, positive and lasting impact on our community.”
Alger agreed: “We’re creating pathways to JMU where none existed before. We seek to give not just the gift of an education, but also the gift of hope for a bright future.”