College was a foreign concept to visionary entrepreneur David Walentas (Engr ’61, GSBA ’64) when he was growing up.
Neither of his parents held degrees—in fact, he did not know anyone who did. Although he would eventually become the most generous benefactor in the history of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, in the 1940s and ’50s, Walentas was a child in a poor, working-class family in Rochester, New York.
In school, Walentas was an excellent student. But he also liked to break the rules. During one of his many sojourns to the principal’s office, he noticed a Navy ROTC poster hanging on the wall. Soon after, he decided to take a step that no one in his family had taken before: He applied to the University of Virginia.
“I knew that [college] was a way out of poverty and a path to opportunity,” Walentas told UVA Today.
His penchant for troublemaking never really went away. Walentas was accepted to U.Va. but subsequently expelled after a clandestine overnight trip to Hollins, a nearby women’s college. Several years later, however, he returned to the University to finish his degree and earn his M.B.A. from the Darden School of Business. In time, he made his way toward New York City, continuing along the path that would eventually lead him to make a truly transformational gift—one that will launch the Walentas Scholars Program and, in turn, change the lives of first-generation college students and their families for many years to come.
As a high school student, Sarah Elaine Hart (JS ’10) knew that if she pursued a college degree, it would put a strain on her family. Her father owned a small construction business. Her mother taught special education. “They had worked really hard to instill an expectation that college was on the table, but I was aware that it would involve many financial sacrifices on their part,” she says.
The Jefferson Scholarship changed her life. “To be offered an opportunity to go to college and graduate debt-free—it was transformative for me,” she says. “It meant so much to be able to tell my parents, ‘I know you’ve been preparing to support me, but I’m going to be able to do this on my own.’”
Selected after an extensive national search, Hart has been appointed the first director of the Walentas Scholars Program, which will specifically empower the Foundation to attract and nurture scholars, citizens, and leaders who—like Walentas himself—have achieved academic excellence and are also the first in their families to attend an institution of higher education.
“I’ve always felt that the great equalizer is education.”David Walentas
This unprecedented initiative forms the heart of the $100 million gift from Walentas and his family, which will also support exceptional students and faculty at Darden through fellowships and professorships.
During an event celebrating his extraordinary philanthropy last fall, Walentas succinctly described the reason behind his generosity to an audience of Jefferson Scholars, alumni, board members, and friends.
“I’ve always felt that the great equalizer is education,” he said.
Hart says her experience as a counselor working with first-generation, college-bound high schoolers has prepared her to be a helpful resource to the Walentas Scholars she will be charged with both attracting and supporting. The positions she has held throughout her career have instilled in her a deep reservoir of knowledge about talented, dedicated students who may face barriers to achieving academic success. Immediately following her graduation from U.Va., Hart served as assistant director for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation’s undergraduate program, and she later went on to work in the engineering division of the University of Maryland College Park Scholars. When she became a high school counselor, she further deepened her understanding of the obstacles that aspiring first-generation college students face.
As director of the Walentas Scholars Program, Hart says she looks forward to developing unique enrichment opportunities for first-generation Scholars and helping them fulfill their potential as outstanding leaders, scholars, and citizens.
David Walentas’ gift is the largest in U.Va. history devoted entirely to scholarships, fellowships, and professorships. His family’s generosity kicked off the public phase of the University’s $5 billion Honor the Future campaign, and it focuses on the campaign’s top priorities: faculty excellence and student access. It also furthers the Jefferson Scholars Foundation’s $250 million goal that is part of the University’s overall campaign.
In addition to the Walentas Scholars Program—which will recruit and support first-generation Scholars not only from the Commonwealth of Virginia but also from Walentas’s hometown of Rochester, New York, and from New York City, where he built his real estate business—the Walentas gift will fund first-generation students identified through the Future Year Scholars Program, an initiative that enables the Darden School to recruit exceptional undergraduate students to join its world-class M.B.A. program. Additionally, the gift will provide funding for the Darden Jefferson Fellowship Program; support the A. Macdonald Caputo Leadership Excellence Fund; establish a Jefferson Scholars Foundation Visiting Professorship; and create three Jefferson Scholars Foundation Professorships, one in real estate at the Darden School and two for University President Jim Ryan to determine the highest and best use.
“It’s no exaggeration in the slightest to emphasize, with incredible gratitude, that this is one of the most significant gifts that the University of Virginia has ever received. Not only because of its size, but because of the difference it will make for U.Va., for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, and for the world of higher education.”U.Va. President Jim Ryan
Ryan said that he expected the new scholarships for first-generation students to “propel [the University] to the next level” in attracting and retaining students who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree.
The Walentas Scholars Program will officially launch in 2021, and its specific features are still taking shape. Hart plans to speak with first-generation alumni and current students, inviting a variety of perspectives to inform the development process. “The Walentas Scholars Program will be much more than room and board, tuition, and financial support,” she says. “It will also be a community that celebrates the tremendous talent and perseverance that I anticipate will lie within each Walentas Scholar.”
While the nurturing of each individual Scholar will be vital to the program’s success, Hart says it’s also important to acknowledge how the generosity of the Walentas family will lead to transformation on a much larger scale.
“The ripple effect of the Walentas Scholars Program will reach far into the future,” Hart says. “It’s exhilarating to think that the Foundation can support a first-generation student at the University of Virginia and that, 50 years from now, their children and grandchildren will continue to reap the benefits of the fact that they were able to pursue a college education.”