Amber Harris ranked among the top of her class at Northumberland County High School but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to follow her dream of a higher degree.
“If I hadn’t received a scholarship, I may not have had the opportunity to go to college,” said Harris, a 2012 graduate of the University of Mary Washington.
On Saturday, May 12, she walked across the stage on UMW’s Fredericksburg campus to receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology, making her the first in her family to graduate from college.
Harris is one of four inaugural graduates of Rappahannock Scholars, a program that mentors and provides financial aid to promising underserved students from the Northern Neck region of Virginia. She and fellow graduates Shanita Mitchell, Amanda Jenkins and Charnele Young have excelled at UMW and each has carved a distinct niche for herself.
Harris has worked as an aide in the Admissions Office since her sophomore year. She recently presented her semester-long research about the effects of family, peer and individual attitudes on satisfaction in interracial romantic relationships at the psychology department’s Psi Chi Symposium. She’s a member of the scholarship and service fraternity Alpha Mu Sigma and plans to pursue a master’s degree in human resources.
The Rappahannock Scholars program began in 2007 when Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions Rita Thompson noticed a lack of applicants from the Northern Neck region of Virginia. The initiative aids the often difficult transition from high school to college, offering financial aid and guaranteed admission to talented students within the counties of Essex, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Lancaster, King and Queen, and Rappahannock.
“They’re amazing,” Thompson said of the graduating seniors. “These stars pushed through when it wasn’t an easy thing to do. They were at the very top of their class.”
Currently, the program comprises 21 students at UMW and 66 high school students. Ninety percent of high school students in the program have continued to a four-year college.
For Shanita Mitchell of Kilmarnock, UMW gave her the chance to recognize and cultivate her passions.
She discovered dance her sophomore year and soon realized her love for the art. Now, she is a choreographer for the Performing Arts Club, vice president of Praise Dance and assistant to the Alter Ego Step Team, where she choreographs and gives feedback to the performers.
“I’ve learned to be around different people, because I came from a small town where everyone was the same,” Mitchell said. “Being at Mary Washington, since it was smaller, I feel like I had a lot of leeway to grow.”
An English major, she aims to become an African-American literature professor. In fact, Thompson said Mitchell is considered by her professors as more of a colleague than a student. Mitchell plans to attend Virginia Commonwealth University next spring.
For Amanda Jenkins of Westmoreland County, the guidance and relationships she gained as a Rappahannock Scholar helped ease her transition into college.
“The Rappahannock Scholars group isn’t just about the money—the family I’ve made with the people involved is irreplaceable,” she said.
Jenkins will start a full-time position as a software engineer with an information technology company in Dahlgren this summer, an offer that came after a semester-long internship with the company while a student. Her burgeoning career and her goal of graduate school are opportunities she cultivated as a Rappahannock Scholar.
“I feel like I’m a more successful, well-rounded person because of the program and because of Mary Washington,” Jenkins said. “It’s pointing me toward a brighter future.”
Charnele Young entered UMW a year later than the other three students and graduated a year early with a degree in psychology. She earned college credit at Northumberland High School and took summer classes at UMW each year. In her last semester, Young tutored a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome through the Comprehensive Autism Partnership, helping him develop literal thinking and social skills.
Young plans to continue the internship, and either take courses to become certified as an applied behavioral analyst, or go to graduate school at Ball State University.
“Mary Washington has been life changing,” she said. “It has opened plenty of doors and opportunities.”