Samantha St. John never planned to go to college.
She was smart—her teachers often told her—but she didn’t think higher education was an option. Her parents never attended college, and the sticker price of a four-year degree kept her from pondering the possibility. That changed her junior year at Essex County High School, when a guidance counselor pulled her out of a pre-calculus class to encourage her to apply for the Rappahannock Scholars program at the University of Mary Washington.
“Rappahannock Scholars has made all the difference in my life,” said St. John, a senior UMW biology major who has been recognized on the prestigious President’s List. “It has given me opportunities that I never dreamed of.”
The Rappahannock Scholars Program celebrates its 10th year partnering with six Northern Neck high schools to mentor and provide academically talented, resource-deprived students encouragement and financial support that make it possible to attend college. Like St. John, many are the first in their families to attend college.
Currently, about 150 high school and college students participate in the program, according to Director Rita Thompson. Over the past decade, nearly 60 Rappahannock Scholars have graduated from UMW.
Among those alumni, Senior Admissions Counselor Chris Lomax ’14, considers Rappahannock Scholars like family. “The program taught me how to step out of my comfort zone and embrace the change around me,” he said. “It taught me how to lead, communicate and think critically. I am the man I am today because of the opportunity to attend UMW and be a part of this amazing program.”
The initiative began in 2007 when Thompson, then an assistant admissions dean, noticed a lack of applicants from the eastern peninsula of the commonwealth between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. Eligible students in grades nine through 12 who attend high schools in the counties of Essex, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Lancaster, and King and Queen are selected by their high school guidance counselors based on their academic promise, financial need and interest in attending UMW after graduation.
Since its inception, the program has maintained an 80 percent graduation rate among scholars. More than one third of the graduates further their educations at institutions like Johns Hopkins, Virginia Tech and George Mason.
“The fact that these students, versus all odds, took a single step and are where they are today is something to celebrate,” Thompson said.
With the semester nearing an end, St. John is focused on balancing her duties as historian for the Cap & Gown Mortar Board honor society and chair of the Rappahannock Scholars Board with work as a Mary Washington Healthcare emergency room scribe. She’s taking on a medical internship in Florida this summer and plans to apply for medical school to pursue geriatric medicine after graduation next May.
Whatever direction her career path takes, Rappahannock Scholars will remain a part of her life.
“Because of the program, I have not only been able to attend the University of Mary Washington, I’ve been able to excel here,” St. John said. “It has given me all the tools and support to make the most of my college experience. I am proud not only to be an Eagle, but also to be a Scholar.”