Jefferson Scholar Program turns 25
Plans to expand scholarships for graduate and undergraduate students
|James Wright, Jefferson Scholar Foundation executive director.
By Chris Wilson
With all the prestige and honor that surrounds the Jefferson Scholarship at the University, many are surprised to learn that the program is only 25 years old.
But the Jefferson Scholar Foundation is not about to let relative youth stand in the way of its plans for the future. The premier merit-based scholarship on Grounds, which offers its recipients a free ride to the University as well as a host of opportunities for study abroad and other enrichment programs, has ambitious goals for expansion in the coming decades, and is looking to raise an impressive sum to see those goals into fruition.
The undergraduate scholarship is the larger and more visible of the foundation’s offerings, but this may change in the near future.
“We’re focusing a lot of our energy right now on the graduate scholarship,” said James Wright, foundation executive director. There are currently 22 graduate fellows in residence, compared to about 30 to 35 undergraduate Jefferson Scholars per class. Wright said the foundation eventually aims to extend the five-year graduate fellowship to 15 to 20 graduate students a year, for a total of 75 to 100 at the University at any given time.
In line with that goal, the board of directors at the foundation recently decided to name a new graduate fellowship in honor of Wright and his wife, Elizabeth, in recognition of his dedication and guidance. This honor was announced at an anniversary banquet held this spring, according to Sondra Feagans, administration director.
Many of the scholarships and fellowships bear the name of a benefactor or honoree, according to the wishes of the donor, Feagans said.
Wright estimates the cost of expanding the fellowship to be in the neighborhood of $50 million, about half of the total $100 million that the foundation’s current capital campaign hopes to raise.
Of the remaining $50 million, Wright said $40 million will go toward small expansions in the undergraduate scholarship, to the tune of about five additional scholars per class for a total of 35 to 40 a year. A large portion of that money also is required just to continue to meet the cost of tuition, which has steadily risen in the past several years.
The remaining $10 million will go toward expanding programming.
Jefferson Scholar alumni certainly are doing their part in demonstrating that the program is effective. Of the 371 alumni to graduate in 20 classes of Jefferson Scholars, four have won Rhodes Scholarships and three have become Marshall Scholars. While at the University, seven served as chair of the Honor Committee and half received honors and awards at Commencement. A huge percentage – 289 of the alumni – pursued advanced degrees, and many have gone into the fields of law or medicine.
Meghan Sullivan, a 2005 College graduate and the 2004-2005 chairwoman of the Honor Committee and the fourth Jefferson Scholar to win a Rhodes Scholarship, said it is this wealth of alumni that is one of the foundation’s greatest strengths. Sullivan said she hopes some of the $10 million earmarked for program expansion can go toward reaching out to those alumni and strengthening their contact with current scholars.
As for becoming a Jefferson Scholar in the first place, selection committees consider three qualifications: citizenship, leadership and scholarship. As one might expect, Wright said these are qualities that best embody the man whose name adorns the scholarship itself.
Wright said these qualities also represent those that Jefferson hoped to impart to graduates of his university, who he envisioned as being leaders in a democratic society.
“The citizenship piece is critical,” Wright said. “Uncommon intellect alone is not sufficient.”
The selection begins with a series of local competitions, in which high school guidance counselors in the 45 regions across the country nominate one student from their school for the scholarship. Regional selection committees, organized by a regional chairperson and often consisting of recent Jefferson Scholar alumni, then review all the applications from their district and conduct interviews to select a group of semifinalists.
The foundation also offers at-large scholarships to prospective students, including international students, who do not live in an area that is represented in the selection process.
But the competition was not always as prolific. In the beginning, the foundation covered only 10 districts in the state, but quickly expanded to encompass the entire commonwealth and beyond.
These 45 regions are not set in stone, however. Wright said the foundation is always looking for means to expand.
“We’ll always want to examine ways that allow us to get the most outstanding students,” he said.
Those students who survive the regional interviews, or who live outside one of the 45 regions but have been chosen by the Office of Admissions to participate, then come to Charlottesville in the spring for an intensive, four-day selection process, in which they attend seminars led by University professors, take exams and give additional interviews. This year, 96 students participated in the selection weekend and 44 were offered scholarships.
As the program ages and the pool of alumni grows, so has the support from the foundation. Wright estimated that about 70 percent of the alumni have made financial contributions to the program – something Sullivan said she eventually would like to do as well, as a token of her gratitude.
“The programs and dinners allowed me to connect with people in younger classes that I might not have met otherwise, and form
great, lasting friendships,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to attend a place like the University without this kind of merit-based scholarship.”