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 entire 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 U.Va.’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 a University-wide, merit-based scholarship program that would greatly expand what a few chapters were able to accomplish.
Invitations were first sent to 177 high schools in 10 regions with strong Alumni Association chapters, asking them to put forth their best candidates. With alumni involved in the screening, the hands-on commitment and 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 added a graduate fellowship program at the request of the College of Arts & Sciences where many of the best graduate students were lured elsewhere by stronger financial packages. The Graduate Fellowship has now sent 78 philosophers, linguists, clinicians, and others into the workplace, all representing U.Va.
In 2010, when the University’s eighth president, Teresa Sullivan, pointed out the challenge of replacing faculty over the next decade as they retired, the Foundation responded yet again. By designing a chaired professorship program, the Foundation gave the University the resources 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 President Ryan's top priorities and aims to attract outstanding first-generation students to U.Va.
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 first class of Jefferson Scholars matriculates to the University, and Jimmy Wright officially begins to work as director.
The Graduate Fellowship Program is established and the first class joins the University.
The program celebrates its 25th anniversary, and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation Faculty Prize is created.
The Jefferson Fellows Center, a 32,700-square-foot LEED Gold certified facility is completed. The Jefferson Scholars Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professorship are established.
A new scholarship program aimed at attracting the most talented first-generation students to the University of Virginia will be established as part of a $100 million gift announced in October 2019 by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.