A billionaire New York real estate developer has given $100 million to the University of Virginia to fund scholarships for students who, like him, are the first in their family to attend college. UVA announced the gift from David and Jane Walentas—one of the largest gifts in the university’s history—as it launched the public phase of its $5 billion capital campaign. According to The Washington Post, the gift is sure to “resonate beyond UVA because it is so central to the mission of higher education to ensure that college is a place of social mobility.”
Gift to have ‘a profound and lasting impact’ on first-gen students
The majority of the gift will support scholarships and fellowships for first-generation students: $50 million is designated for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, “which funds the school’s most prestigious merit-based award,” writes The Washington Post. UVA will provide a matching $20 million from its Bicentennial Scholars Fund to support full scholarships for first-generation undergraduate students. UVA expects the gift will fund 15 first-generation Walentas Scholars every year in perpetuity, starting with the class entering in fall 2022.
An additional $25 million of the Walentas’s gift will establish a fellowship program for first-generation undergraduate students to continue on to the Darden School of Business, from which Walentas graduated in 1964, after earning his undergraduate degree at UVA in 1961. The university will use the remaining $25 million to attract competitive faculty and students.
The gift comes amid a concerted effort to increase UVA’s first-generation student population, which has grown from 318 students in their first year of college in 2012 to 502 students in 2019.
“This gift will have a profound and lasting impact on first-generation college students,” said Jimmy Wright, president of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. “We look forward to establishing the preeminent scholarship program in the nation for first-generation students and bringing an exceptional group of smart, resilient and industrious Walentas Scholars to the University of Virginia.”
‘Education is a great equalizer’, says farm hand-turned-billionaire
UVA lauded the gift’s potential to enhance the school’s power as an engine of economic and social mobility. David and Jane Walentas for decades have supported the Jefferson Scholars Program, opening up new possibilities for students like Jefferson Scholar Kadeem Cooper. Cooper, a first-generation student from the Bronx whose mother emigrated from Jamaica, told The Post that the opportunity to graduate college without debt led him to choose UVA over Harvard University, continue on to law school, and work on Capitol Hill. The Jefferson Scholars Program offered not only economic freedom to follow his passions but also access to social capital through a network of high-achieving peers and alumni mentors.
College was “transformational” for Walentas, too. As a child, he worked on a farm, didn’t know anyone who had attended college, and joined ROTC to attend UVA on scholarship. He went on to found the real estate development firm Two Trees Management in 1968. Now, at age 81, David is focusing on giving back, saying that “education is a great equalizer.”