In 2017, as the University of Virginia looked back on its first 200 years, its leaders were taking important strides toward ensuring the success of its next century. During its bicentennial celebration, the University renewed its long-held commitment to a tradition of educating citizens of a healthy national democracy. In the same year, it announced a commitment to build a Bicentennial Scholars Fund, a permanent endowment to be funded jointly by donors and the University, to support need-based undergraduate scholarships for talented students from all backgrounds, regardless of their families’ financial situations.
As one of only two public universities that promise the cost of attending will never be a barrier to attending, UVA must manage the financial challenge of honoring the promise. And while the scholarship fund plays an important role in helping the University keep its promise, the fund also demonstrates the University’s commitment to representative democracy in an increasingly diverse society. As the first of the University’s Bicentennial Scholars move close to Final Exercises, it’s becoming clear that the fund has had the additional effect of inspiring UVA’s next generation of Arts & Sciences alumni to embrace another of its most honored traditions: a commitment to service.
“Democracy is about the ability to persuade and the willingness to be persuaded, and to promote this kind of democracy we need a free and educated citizenry,” said Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. “It needs a people informed and educated to advance the ideals of the democratic promise, and the Bicentennial Scholarship Fund is vital for the University to deliver on the promise of this mission and to help open the doors of education to all.”
Tammy McHale, senior associate dean for administration and planning with the College of Arts & Sciences added that, “BSFs enable every admitted student to afford a UVA education and then join the ranks of future leaders who will shape culture and society of the world for decades to come.”
For Bicentennial Scholars Fund donors like Sherry Ramsay (CLAS ’90), giving to the fund was an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to the values she feels she learned as a student at a university grounded in the promise of the Declaration of Independence — that all are created equal regardless of background, circumstance, or financial ability, and that it is vital for UVA to ever more fully embody that truth in the lives of the students it admits and supports.
“It’s so important to have education be accessible to everyone and not just the fortunate or the wealthy,” Ramsay said, “and I can't think of a university that's more suited to support what our society really needs right now.”
The idea of honor was also an important factor in Ramsay’s decision to give to the Bicentennial Scholarship Fund. To her, the University’s traditions of honor and service are inextricably linked and are guiding principles not just in the classroom and on Grounds but for life.
“It’s what makes the University unique. It leaves a mark on how you conduct yourself,” Ramsay said. “Are you going to use your UVA education for good in life? To what purpose, and to what end? I think honor is an important part of our tradition, and I hope that it remains intact because it’s as valued by society just as much as the education itself.”
"I think honor is an important part of our tradition, and I hope that it remains intact because it’s as valued by society just as much as the education itself."
Since the Bicentennial Scholars Fund’s inception, donors have committed $17 million earmarked for students enrolled in the College. Gifts and pledges of $1 million or more are matched dollar for dollar by the University. Gifts and pledges of $100,000 to $1 million receive a 50 percent match. Combined, gifts from donors and matching money from the University have contributed over $29 million to the College’s endowment to date. And while those gifts have provided essential support to deserving undergraduates in Arts & Sciences, they’re also convincing the next generation’s leaders of the importance of giving something back.
Paying it Forward
For Karissa Smith, a first-generation college student, just applying to colleges was difficult enough, but for someone from a single-parent household with limited resources the challenge of finding the money for tuition and living expenses seemed impossible.
Receiving an acceptance letter from UVA felt like an accomplishment in itself, but it wasn’t until she and her mother opened her financial aid package together that the possibility of attending the University seemed real.
“We cried. We cried hard,” Smith said. “That was a life changer.”
Now in her third year, Smith studies psychology and works in a research lab on Grounds, which is helping her lay the foundation for the next step in her academic journey: a master’s in social work which will prepare her for a career as a licensed clinical social worker.
“There are very few days that go by when I don't think about how fortunate I am to be able to have this opportunity,” Smith said. “So that's the route that I want to take now: being able to help people the same way that people have helped my family.”
Making the transition to life at a large public university hasn’t been easy for first-generation college student Amber Liller, but Liller thrives on challenges.
Community is important to the third-year student of psychology and English, and during a global pandemic when bringing people together has been exceptionally difficult, she has found ways to stay engaged by planning virtual events with friends and classmates using the same video conferencing technology that has made remote learning a possibility. The experience has helped her continue to create a sense of unity with her fellow Hoos during a time when many are struggling to make meaningful connections.
But pursuing a degree at a four-year university would not have been possible for Liller without the help of the Bicentennial Scholars Fund.
“It inspires me to make my time worthwhile,” Liller said. And it has inspired her to pay the experience forward by pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a focus on family or child psychology.
“I love working with kids, and I love psychology, so I want to bring those two things together to
find a way to make kids’ lives better.”
Virginia seemed like another world to Arizona native Taha Ben Abdallah, but an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective is exactly what he wanted.
Help from the Bicentennial Scholars Fund made it possible for Ben Abdallah to realize that dream, and it gave him the chance to be part of the College’s new curriculum which creates exactly the kind of opportunities that Ben Abdallah was hoping to find as a student of global security and justice.
His first Engagements course explored the subject of identity in society.
“This is a class that every single student should be taking,” Ben Abdallah said. “It provides a chance for us to step outside of ourselves and to put ourselves in others’ positions.”
Since then, Ben Abdallah hasn’t stopped expanding his horizons and has taken advantage of opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.
“I’ve met so many fascinating people from completely different walks of life with interesting and insightful perspectives,” Ben Abdallah said about what being a Bicentennial Scholar at UVA has made possible. “It has changed my world and has changed who I am and what I thought I could do.”
Now in his second year, Ben Abdallah doesn’t yet have a clear focus on how he’ll put his education to use, but he’s sure that it will involve working with communities that don’t have a fair shot at opportunity.
“With what I'm studying right now, and all the different avenues that I'm taking,” Ben Abdallah said, “the possibilities are endless.”