Thirty years after the first Scholars class entered the University, our alumni community is now comprised of nearly 700 Scholars and more than 70 Fellows. These individuals live, work and learn all over the world, serving as teachers, doctors, lawyers, researchers, entrepreneurs, veterinarians, parents, poets, musicians and playwrights. They remain a vibrant and committed group of individuals who make significant contributions to the communities around them.
They also continue to give back to the Foundation. Their philanthropic contributions aid the Foundation in its growth and have endowed multiple scholarships. But it’s the gift of time that often proves especially valuable. Alumni serve as interviewers on selection committees and as advisers to the Foundation on various other boards and committees. In less official capacities, they provide internship opportunities and mentor current Scholars or Fellows.
Commitment by the Numbers
- 80% of Alumni have made a gift to the Foundation
- 93% of Alumni have made a gift to the University
- 62% of Alumni have served on a Regional or National Selection Committee since graduation
- 254 Alumni served on a committee in support of the Foundation’s mission in 2013-14
- 44 Alumni serve as a Chair or Co-Chair of a Regional Selection Committee in 2014-15
- 101 Alumni have offered an internship opportunity for current Scholars and Fellows
- 297 Alumni have offered to provide mentoring to current Scholars and Fellows
The story of Jefferson Scholar Keaton Wadzinski and his relationships with two alums shows just how powerful that sort of mentorship can be.
Creating the Future of School
Third-year Jefferson Scholar Keaton Wadzinski first started questioning the prevailing approach to education during his senior year of high school in Nashville, Tennessee. He’d experienced ample academic success, but one question kept nagging him: Why? And to what end?
His coping mechanism—the “cure to his senioritis,” as he calls it—was watching TED Talks on how education could be improved. In a talk that deeply resonated, writer Seth Godin argues that our educational model is based on a one-size-fits-all approach from the industrial age. We’ve failed to inspire an underlying sense of purpose. Godin contends that no one is answering the question, What is school for?
While still in high school, Wadzinski attempted to take on this question through a video-based “guerilla marketing project,” intended to spark conversation in the classroom and in the break room. But it never got off the ground. When he arrived at U.Va. in 2013, however, his passion really took root—and he found advocates through the Jefferson Scholars network to help him refine and accelerate his ideas.
When World-Changers Unite
Among these mentors is Kate Ezell, chairman of the middle Tennessee region of the Foundation and a graduate of U.Va. (BS ’75) and Darden School of Business (MBA ’81).
In her role as chairman, Ezell encourages area guidance counselors to nominate exceptional students for the Jefferson Scholarship and coordinates the active group of 50 regional volunteers that support the Scholars selection process. She is also a force for educational reform in the middle Tennessee area. As an educational consultant, Ezell has worked for decades to empower voices in the local community to demand better schools.
Ezell and Wadzinski met during the Scholars selection process, discovering their mutual zeal for improving education. They then remained in touch as Wadzinski got serious about education issues during his undergraduate years. “Kate has been really instrumental as someone who believes in me as an education figure,” Wadzinski says.
During his first year, Wadzinski took on a leadership role with the digitally based organization Student Voice, which sparks social media conversations on education across the country (using #StuVoice) and invites students to vote on their priorities.
“Student Voice shaped a lot of the framework of how I approach education,” he says. “If you empower a platform for student voices to be heard, that ownership leads to agency, which leads to engagement.”
Through another education group he admired, Wadzinski heard about the Future of School challenge, an invitation to submit proposals for radically different school models. He kicked around ideas with his Student Voice peers and the Jefferson Scholars community. “I was having 13 coffee meetings a week,” he laughs.
Ezell remembers receiving a call from Wadzinski as he was preparing to apply for the grant. “That’s interesting,’ I said. ‘Are you leaving the University to start a school?’ He said, ‘No, no, I’m going to do it while I’m here.’
“He’s not a man who recognizes limits easily.”
Wadzinski’s school concept posed the question, What if students designed school? “The model,” he says, “was to empower local youth as part of the design process before the school ever launched.”
The Power of Multiple Minds
During school breaks when Wadzinski went home to Nashville, he met with Ezell and other U.Va. alumni to continue the dialogue. The conversations were always forward-looking and solutions-oriented, not focused on problems or complaints.
“You really never know what ideas can be generated,” Wadzinski says, “when these multiple minds come together.”
Through these conversations, Wadzinski also benefited from a close connection with former Jefferson Scholar Chad Prather. Whereas Ezell understands the system of education, Prather understands the practice of it. A teacher at one of Nashville’s toughest schools, Prather knows the daily work of getting apathetic youth to engage, and he meets this challenge by remixing lessons as interactive games and other creative formats.
In Prather’s classroom, purpose precedes process—an ideal instilled in him through his Scholars experience. “So much of public education,” he says, “is or can be about the process: We need to cross these Ts, submit these papers, jump through these hoops. It’s very easy to lose sight of a greater mission or purpose.”
As Wadzinski works against just these conditions, Prather helps him understand the hands-on reality of teaching. “In order to change education,” Prather says, “he’s going to have to sell his ideas to teachers and administrators. He needs a group of people who know the realities on the ground, and I’ve been a little bit of that for him.”
Wadzinski eventually submitted his charter school concept to the Future of School challenge. The committee loved it, and while he didn’t win, he ended up interning at the host organization, 4.0 Schools, the summer after his first year.
It Starts With the Community
Now more than halfway through his college years, Wadzinski is pursuing studies in Youth and Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship while running ReinventED Lab, a Charlottesville organization he founded with support from 4.0 Schools. Through events like his “24 Hour Challenge” and “Problem-solvathon,” Wadzinski invites everyone from students to educators and community leaders to approach education from a “design thinking” standpoint. Participants pitch, workshop and iterate on ideas with the user—students—in mind.
Throughout these endeavors, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation has provided a community in which Wadzinski’s collaborative, mobilizing nature is celebrated and supported. Counsel and encouragement from alumni Kate Ezell and Chad Prather has helped Wadzinski jumpstart his efforts, translating high-school discontent into visionary ideas for a new future of education—one designed by students for students.