Answering the Call

Jefferson Scholars seal in white

The world is full of smart, capable leaders who want to make a mark. Yet the Jefferson Scholars Foundation has always been committed to something more. It was founded to bring individuals to the University of Virginia who want to use their talents in ways bigger than themselves—for the good of the University and the world beyond.

In accomplishing this mission, the Foundation has supported the needs of the University at critical points throughout its history.

During the 1960s, the diversification that followed the civil rights movement changed the face of the University: Enrollment more than doubled between 1965 and 1980, attracting close to 50 percent women for the first time as well as almost 10 percent minority students.

This growth fueled UVA’s ability to compete at a national level for an even greater percentage of exceptional undergraduates. In turn, the Dean of Admissions charged several regional alumni chapters to fund scholarships for outstanding students in their area. Not long after, the Alumni Association approved the Jefferson Scholars Program, a University-wide, merit-based scholarship program that would greatly expand what a few chapters were able to accomplish.

Invitations to nominate a student for a Jefferson Scholarship were first sent to 177 high schools in 10 regions. With UVA alumni in charge of the interview and selection process, a sense of ownership was strong from the start. The first Jefferson Scholars class joined the University in 1981.

“Each of our three programmatic initiatives—Scholarships, Fellowships, Professorships—has been a direct response to a University request or an identified need. Every major programmatic decision we have made has been designed to help the University meet a pressing need and to further the Foundation’s mission of attracting exceptionally talented people to Grounds.”

Jimmy Wright, President, Jefferson Scholars Foundation

In 1998, the Foundation launched a new graduate fellowship program at the request of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, where many of the best graduate students at the time were lured elsewhere by stronger financial packages. Today, the Jefferson Fellowship is the premier graduate fellowship offered at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the Darden School of Business and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

In 2010, as an unprecedented number of tenured faculty began to retire, the University’s administration faced the challenge of recruiting the next generation of outstanding professors. The Foundation responded yet again by designing a Distinguished Professorship Program. To date, the Foundation has secured more than $180 million toward this effort, giving UVA the resources it needs to attract and retain elite talent.

In 2019, after announcing a $100 million commitment from benefactors Jane and David Walentas, the Foundation began working to develop a new merit scholarship program on behalf of the University. The Walentas Scholars Program is a direct response to one of the University’s top priorities and aims to attract outstanding first-generation, college-bound students to UVA.

The goal has always been to support the University. For now and for the future, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation stands ready to answer the call—whatever shape it takes.

The Power of Philanthropy