Jefferson Scholars Foundation Awards Full Scholarships to 32 Outstanding Students

UVA building with the sun shining on half of the building with chairs on the patio

The home of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The Jefferson Scholars Foundation has awarded Jefferson Scholarships to 32 high school seniors who will attend the University of Virginia this fall, the foundation announced today. The scholarships, which attract the most promising leaders, scholars and citizens in the world to the University, provide full financial support for four years of study plus additional enrichment experiences.

Every year, the foundation coordinates a rigorous selection process for the prestigious scholarships, involving up to 1,000 volunteers across the globe who help review thousands of candidate nominations from 63 worldwide regions. In 2020, the foundation received more than 2,000 nominations.

One of the highlights of the selection process is the Jefferson Scholars Selection Weekend, held on Grounds in late March for finalists who meet faculty and selection committee members, take a UVA seminar, complete a final interview and learn more about life at UVA.

Clearly, this year would be different; Jefferson Scholars Foundation leaders responded immediately to the spread of COVID-19, holding emergency meetings to formulate a new plan. “The health and well-being of the weekend’s participants were first and foremost on our minds,” Jimmy Wright, president of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, said.

Taking the weekend events completely online for the roughly 120 finalists and 100 committee members was one of the biggest challenges the foundation ever faced. All agreed it was critical to maintain the integrity of the selection process, which ensures that every candidate is considered equally and consistently according to well-established guidelines.

The weekend’s ultimate success reflected extensive hours of work by staff and selection committee volunteers to coordinate a smooth transition and adhere to the highest procedural standards.

“We also had strong support from Madison Hall and Jefferson Scholars alumni,” Wright said. “President Ryan kicked off the orientation by welcoming and congratulating the finalists, and our committee members and alums shared their own experiences with the audience.”

Three weeks of Zoom preparation and training sessions with finalists and committee members resulted in 100% participation during the event, held March 18.

“It demonstrates the dedication and commitment of our alumni,” Pat Ingram, director of development for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, said. “It really speaks volumes about their commitment and willingness to help.”

Jefferson Scholar alumni who serve as selection committee members play a key role in the selection process, dedicating many hours to reviewing candidates’ qualifications as they prepare for final interviews. The absence of in-person interactions, such as meeting candidates over dinner and observing them in classrooms, resulted in limited data for the interviewers, who make what Jefferson Scholar alumnus Coolidge Elmo “C.E.” Rhodes called “life-changing decisions.”

Rhodes, however, affirmed that detailed information provided by foundation staff and the videoconference sessions themselves gave interviewers what they needed to come to the right decision.

“The process was totally successful and unbiased,” Rhodes said. “The Jefferson Scholar Foundation leadership was at the forefront of planning around the COVID-19 pandemic and made the right call to hold the interviews online.”

Rhodes recalled participating in his own Jefferson Scholars Selection Weekend, which he called one of his most formative experiences. He made lifelong friends with other candidates, and said he wished that this year’s finalists could have visited Grounds.

“You can’t replicate that camaraderie or showcase the beauty of the University of Virginia on a screen,” he said. “On the other hand, the candidates were completely comfortable online.”

“I remember feeling so energized meeting the other finalists and getting excited about going to college,” said section committee member Meg Raymond Smith, another Jefferson Scholar alumna. “Two of the friends I made that weekend were bridesmaids at my wedding.”

Smith said the interview process went better than she expected. The technology was in place and finalists and interviewers alike were well-prepared. “One candidate did his interview in his car, parked where he could get better Wi-Fi,” she said. “Really, the tech side of things worked flawlessly.”

With her other interviewers, Smith spent time at the end of each session talking about life at UVA and the experience of being on Grounds. “I lived on the Lawn, and it was magical,” she said. “I do think some students had to take a bit of a leap of faith in accepting. My hope is that this new class will find the strength of UVA’s Jefferson Scholars community and develop the bonds that last long after you leave Grounds.”

Selection committee member George Martin, former rector of UVA’s Board of Visitors and a Jefferson Scholar Foundation board member, expressed his confidence in the entering class, as well as the graduating class of Jefferson Scholars.

“The type of students we attract demonstrate all-around excellence, and will grow from this experience,” he said. “The fourth-year Jefferson Scholars held their traditional banquet over Zoom in April. They aren’t jaded – they’re focused on the positive experiences ahead.”

The 32 Jefferson Scholars selected this year come from 14 states and the U.K. They join a community of 111 rising second-, third- and fourth-year scholars.

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