HARRISONBURG — Six years ago, Brooklyn Kier was a seventh-grader at Shelburne Middle School in Staunton.
She had been planning to go to college, but at the time had no idea how she was going to afford it or get there. Brooklyn was a first generation college goer.
But then Brooklyn’s counselor told her she’d submitted her name for a new program, the Valley Scholars program through James Madison University. If selected, Brooklyn would work with the university beginning in eighth grade and through high school, and upon graduating from high school, she would be given a full scholarship to JMU.
She didn’t know it when she was a seventh-grader, but the Valley Scholars program was about to change her life.
Fast forward five years, Brooklyn has graduated high school and is eagerly awaiting being the first one in her family to go to college.
“When I was younger I told my mom ‘I’m going to go to JMU,’” Brooklyn said. “That was always the plan, but I had no idea how it was going to happen.”
Brooklyn is among the first cohort of Valley Scholars students to graduate from high school and head to JMU, having met all criteria of the program, which included attending meetings and going on field trips and maintaining a 3.25 GPA.
Along with Brooklyn, 26 students will be attending JMU in the fall. She plans to study kinesiology with the hope of becoming an occupational therapist who works with special needs kids.
Jenna Souder is a Stonewall Jackson High School graduate and unlike Brooklyn, college was never something she thought about or planned for before being accepted in the Valley Scholars program.
She said the program was very rewarding and that her family might be more excited than she is that she’ll be attending JMU.
“Without Valley Scholars this would not be happening,” Jenna said. She plans to study social work, with the hope of working with kids in some way.
Geselle Ramos said she was shocked when she was accepted into the Valley Scholars program because only a few students from the entire Page County school district had been accepted.
“After the shock I thought maybe this happened for a reason and then I was really happy about it,” Geselle said.
It wasn’t just Geselle who was excited. She said the program was a huge relief for her family.
“They were so happy; they only want the best for their kids,” Geselle said.
Although she is heading into JMU undeclared, she said she has a “general idea” of what she wants to study.
The idea for the Valley Scholars program was born from the university’s vision to engage with the community and the world to solve problems, said President Jonathan Alger.
And one problem that people face is access and opportunity in higher education.
Alger helped base the program on a similar one created during his time at Rutgers University called the Rutgers Future Scholars program.
One of the key aspects of both programs is identifying students while they’re still in middle school, Alger said.
“You want to identify them before they embark on a high school curriculum,” Alger said. “To make sure they are on the right path even before they start high school.”
The other important aspect is the cohort model. These students, although from different schools and localities, meet together on campus at least once a month and have for the past five years. This helps with accountability and the sense that they’re going through the program with others.
As a result of being able to go to college, students are also changing their dreams and ambitions. They want to be doctors, lawyers, careers they didn’t even know about before the Valley Scholars program made them a possibility.
“This program represents a strategic investment in our young people,” Alger said.