UMW senior Laura Mangano graduated at the top her high school class. She could’ve gone on to study wherever she wanted. But in a single-parent home with two siblings already in college, she wasn’t sure they could afford it.
Rappahannock Scholars, a University of Mary Washington program that steers hard-working high-schoolers in the Northern Neck area toward four-year degrees, changed that. Mangano will leave campus this week with a biology degree and Alzheimer’s research under her belt, plus one other thing – a spot in the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, the No. 1-ranked master’s program of its type in the nation.
“I applied just to see if I would get in because it’s my dream school,” said Mangano, who will start the rigorous coursework this fall. “I was shocked when I got my acceptance letter.”
Growing up in Callao, a small Northumberland town, she followed her big brother to EMT training and volunteered in the nearby emergency room.
“Coming to college, I knew I wanted to pursue something within the medical field,” said Mangano, who found the fast pace exhilarating.
UMW offered the best of both worlds – a small school not far from home.
“I loved Fredericksburg and I really, really wanted to go to Mary Washington,” she said. “Rappahannock Scholars made it possible for me to come here.”
The initiative, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, provides emotional and financial support to college students, many of whom are first-generation.
“I remember when Laura got here,” said Rita Thompson, who has directed the program since it started in 2007 in response to a shortage of applicants from the Northern Neck region. “She’s been a model student from day one.”
Rappahannock Scholars maintains an 80 percent graduation rate, Thompson said, with nearly 60 participants having received their UMW degrees throughout the past decade.
“I can’t believe I’ve come so far,” Mangano said of her growth through the program and at Mary Washington.
Associate Professor of Biology Dianne Baker agrees. From the shy freshman who showed up in her introductory biology class, Baker has seen Mangano bloom. But there was something there from the start.
“She was one of the strongest students in the class – always prepared, always serious about her work,” Baker said.
So she singled her out, making Mangano the first freshman she’d asked to join in lab research. Mangano seized the opportunity, spending much of her time between the third and fourth floors of the Jepson Science Center, earning school credit, helping others with projects and training new students.
By junior year, she’d begun pursuing her own research. It was personal. She’d lost her grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease. “I didn’t know much about him because of it,” she said. “That’s kind of why I wanted to do this.”
Mangano set to work exposing zebrafish embryos to an environmental toxin called Benzo(a)pyrene, then dissecting their brains at adulthood. Of the five human-like genes she examined, one was significantly altered in a way that can lead to Alzheimer’s, showing that environmental factors, as well as genetics, can contribute to the disease.
“The way you live life, what you eat, what you’re exposed to, can all be influencers,” she said.
All the while, she continued to build her off-campus resume, volunteering in the Mary Washington Healthcare emergency room, working with homeless children and rescuing animals. She joined Mary Washington’s Pre-Med Club, Biology Student Association, Best Buddies program, and club lacrosse and field hockey teams.
But Mangano hadn’t forgotten where it all started. She served three years on the Rappahannock Scholars advisory board and made some big impressions along the way.
“Although she was shocked to be accepted into the Johns Hopkins program, I was not,” Baker said. “With her intelligence, empathy and true passion for the field, I am confident that she will succeed in the program and make an outstanding nurse.
Ester Salguero ’18 contributed to this story.