The story of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and its 36-year history of attracting outstanding talent to the University of Virginia cannot be told without also telling the stories of the thousands of alumni and friends who have invested in the Foundation’s mission through private support.
There are many, many reasons people choose to do that. Some appreciate the Foundation’s core focus on excellence and its reputation for outstanding stewardship and fiscal responsibility. Others view supporting the Foundation as a unique way to raise the University’s profile not only in their own hometowns, but also across the Foundation’s 59 regions.
Still others see it as a combination of all of that, plus the opportunity to build a strong and meaningful lifeline to the University through the Scholars and Fellows they help support. The story of donor Ann Lee Brown and her relationship with two scholarship recipients highlights just how meaningful that lifeline can be for everyone involved.
From Monetary Gift to Mentorship
In addition to the deep well of support found in peers and advisers at the Foundation, some Jefferson Scholars are fortunate to draw from yet another form of mentorship: a special connection with the donor who made their experience possible. In this relationship, it is not just the students who benefit; for the donor, a financial investment becomes personal.
When Ann Lee Brown of Richmond, Virginia, met the first recipient of a scholarship she established in 2005 in her late husband’s name, the two formed a fast bond.
“There were all these influential people at the ceremony,” recalls James Villarrubia, a first year at the time, “and she was interested in me the entire evening. I remember leaving that night feeling like I was her family. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a big deal for her. And it was clearly a big deal for me; my family could not have afforded U.Va. without the scholarship.”
The Charles L. Brown Jefferson Memorial Scholarship attracts first-rate engineering students to the university. A Cavalier himself and a 1943 graduate in electrical engineering, Brown loved the university—and he championed its investment in applied science while he served on the Board of Visitors during the early ’90s.
‘He looked into the future,” Ann Lee Brown recalls. “He said many times to [former University president] John Casteen (1990-2010), ‘We are living in a time when technology will become more important year after year, discovery after discovery, and the university needs to offer strong engineering classes.’”
An Original Jefferson Scholar
Through his life and career, Charlie, as he preferred to be called, advanced the ideals of the Foundation before it came to be. A careful listener with a quiet disposition, he served as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II before beginning a career in the telephone industry. During his tenure as chairman of AT&T in the early ’80s, he oversaw the historic “breakup of the Bell System,” a colossal reorganization of the corporation into seven smaller entities.
Now, through the couple’s generosity, Scholars are continuing Charlie’s example of leadership and dedication—and throughout their endeavors, Ann Lee’s positive spirit provides both grounding and a lift.
“Ann Lee was the perfect embodiment of encouraging us to reach our full potential and be ourselves. Every interaction echoed that,” says Charles L. Brown Scholar Wayne Dell (class of 2012), who connected with Mrs. Brown at several key moments throughout his college years.
Conversations with Ann Lee Brown and the Jefferson Scholars community helped Dell navigate an identity crisis not uncommon for first-year students. Intent on pursuing medicine from an early age, Dell arrived at the university and soon discovered a love for the Chinese language, as well as passions for theater and a cappella.
Authenticity Above All
As Dell questioned the longstanding vision for his life, words from Mrs. Brown offered perspective: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” and, “As long as you’re listening to yourself and doing what you think is right, you’re on the right path.”
These mantras offered confidence as Dell decided to pursue studies in Chinese language and economics, later turning down a finance job to study in China.
“The message was, ‘We want you to be Wayne. We’re going to give you the resources to do that and there’s no right path,’” Dell remembers. Surprisingly, that path led him back to medical school, but only after spending a year in China, becoming fluent in Mandarin and gaining valuable relationships across the globe.
This push toward authenticity also led Dell to the student-run theater group First Year Players, where he met James Villarrubia, then-director. Not knowing Dell was a fellow Scholar, Villarrubia cast him as a lead in “Footloose.” It was a proud moment for Ann Lee Brown, who came to see the show.
For Villarrubia, the Brown family scholarship removed the need to hold a job to keep pace with student expenses. He could then bring his engineering “systems thinking” to First Year Players and to conversations with his fellow Scholars. This freedom from income requirements also allowed him to pursue a summer internship at the White House working for the President’s science advisor, as well as other leadership opportunities. Today, he’s a product manager for a cybersecurity technology startup.
Searching for a way to thank the Brown family for a gift that “dramatically shaped” his experience, Villarrubia decided to hand-craft a music box for Mrs. Brown. Detailed with a faux-ivory design that mimics the rotunda, the box is programmed to play “Auld Lang Syne,” the tune of the University’s famous “Good Old Song.” She cherishes the memento to this day.
“Putting a face to the incredible opportunity I was given has underscored the generosity of the Brown family,” Dell says, “and showed that Mrs. Brown is invested in the betterment and growth of future Scholars as people.”
Through Jefferson Scholars donors, deep generosity leads to life-changing relationships. A check becomes a community.