David Walentas didn’t know anyone who had been to college when he was growing up. His father, a postal clerk, was paralyzed by a stroke when Walentas was a little boy, so he and his brother were sent to live and work on a farm. It was something halfway between being an indentured servant and an orphan, he said. They would get up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows and muck out the barn, go to school and come back home to milk and shovel again. But he knew college could be a path out of poverty, so he jumped at the chance to go to the University of Virginia on an ROTC scholarship.
“It was transformational for me,” he said. “Education is a great equalizer.”
Now, the billionaire real estate developer is making that kind of leap possible for others, with a landmark $100 million gift to U-Va. that will fund scholarships for outstanding students who are the first in their families to attend college.
The gift to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, which funds the school’s most prestigious merit-based award, was announced Saturday night as the University of Virginia launched the public phase of its $5 billion capital campaign.
James E. Ryan, the school’s president, said the gift is important for U-Va. because one of the institution’s priorities is increasing access and support for students whose parents did not attend college. The gift, one of the largest ever given to the school, will do just that, he said. “I’m thrilled by it,” he said.
It’s a gift that will resonate beyond U-Va. because it is so central to the mission of higher education to ensure that college is a place of social mobility. Amid increasing public skepticism about the value of higher education and criticism that many institutions are elitist, Ryan said, “it’s incredibly important that we do all we can to make sure that talented students from every walk of life have a real shot of attending.”
The gift is personal for Ryan, just as it is for Walentas. Ryan was a first-generation college student as well, at Yale University and the University of Virginia School of Law. “It opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “It completely changed the trajectory of my life.”
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The bulk of Walentas’s $100 million gift will go toward scholarships, with $50 million funding first-generation students through the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.
The university will give an additional $20 million for full scholarships for first-generation undergraduates from its Bicentennial Scholars Fund; U-Va. is marking the 200th year since it was chartered.
U-Va.’s Darden School of Business will benefit from $25 million from Walentas’s gift to create a fellowship program for students who were the first in their families to graduate from college and want to continue their education in business.
The remaining $25 million will be used to attract top faculty and students.
The university hopes to lure students who excel in leadership, scholarship and citizenship, said Jimmy Wright, president of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.
“It is our expectation and intent that we will establish the best first-generation scholarship in the country as the result of David’s philanthropy,” Wright said. “It’s a remarkable gift.”
The state flagship school has already been drawing increasing numbers of first-generation students. In 2012, there were 318 first-year students who were first in their families to attend college. In 2019, that number had jumped to 502 of the 3,920 first-year students.
The gift is expected to fund 15 first-generation Walentas Scholars each year, with the first class to enter in fall 2022. They’ll begin their search in three places important to Walentas — New York City, Virginia and Rochester, N.Y. — but won’t limit it to those locations.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact the scholarships can have, according to Kadeem Cooper, who was nominated by his Brooklyn high school and selected as a Jefferson Scholar, an award that he said made him turn down his offer of admission from Harvard University. “That was an inflection point,” he said as his 10th reunion at U-Va. approaches. “In ways that are tangible and intangible, it kind of changed the trajectory of my life.”
The opportunity for a college education without debt was too good to pass up. It opened all sorts of possibilities for Cooper after college. He could (and did) choose law school, and a job on Capitol Hill working on issues that are important to him, rather than feeling compelled to make decisions driven by student loans.
Growing up in Brooklyn raised by his mother, an immigrant from Jamaica, Cooper knew education could be a pathway to social mobility. “One of the reasons for the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans is . . . white families often have social capital that students of color don’t have,” he said. “Jefferson Scholars gave me access to social capital,” as he became part of a network of high-achieving students and alumni who could mentor him and offer advice.
“Education is not just supposed to be about individual enrichment,” he added. “It’s supposed to be about preparing responsible citizens. Our democracy doesn’t work if we don’t have people committed to the community.”
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Walentas grew up working hard and grabbing chances when he saw them. Working on the farm as a child made him self-reliant, he said. After his father’s death, when he was a young teenager, he and his brother moved back home to Rochester. He did well in school, when he wasn’t getting into trouble. One day, when he was waiting in the principal’s office, he saw a poster for a four-year ROTC scholarship and said, “That’s for me.”
Another day in high school, he was reading the paper when he saw an ad from a car dealership promising a car for 99 cents for the first person in line that Monday, $9.99 for the second.
It was Friday morning. He got on a bus and went straight there and waited, behind one other person, for three days. That Monday morning, he bought a 1947 Plymouth for less than a $10 bill.
He drove it to U-Va. — and to the nearby women’s colleges in Virginia. That eventually got him kicked out of school, and cost him his ROTC scholarship, for violating the school’s rules banning overnight stays.
That later turned out to be a good thing, Walentas said, because he went home and worked for a year and re-enrolled with the money he had saved.
“U-Va. completely changed my life,” he said. Suddenly, he was surrounded by smart people, leaders, people aspiring to all sorts of professions. “It was a whole different world.”
Walentas received his undergraduate degree in 1961 and his MBA from the Darden School of Business in 1964. After that, he began his next adventures — moving to Greenland to clean out septic systems because it paid more than anything he could find in the United States to pay off his student loans, talking his way onto a Danish freighter to get back to the United States, selling a pint of blood when he was out of money to get lunch and enough gas to get home. Then he was working and dreaming of real estate, finding a partner to take out a loan to buy an apartment building in New York. He was off and running.
His best-known gamble was about 40 years ago, when he and some partners spent $12 million to buy 2 million square feet of space in a largely abandoned industrial area of Brooklyn “Down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass,” which has been transformed into the gleaming, vibrant (and expensive) waterfront neighborhood known as Dumbo.
Since he founded the real estate development firm Two Trees Management in 1968, the company has owned, managed and developed a portfolio worth more than $4 billion. The company is now led by his son, Jed Walentas.
Now, at 81, he and his wife, Jane Walentas — “She’s the best. She’s more responsible for my success than anybody,” he said — are focused on philanthropy. They have given to many causes and have supported the Jefferson Scholars for decades.
It felt like time to make a donation that could alter the course.
“My time at U-Va. completely changed my life,” David Walentas said. “I wish all the recipients good luck, and have a go, and have the courage to follow your dreams.”
Too many people are afraid to take chances, he said. “Don’t have regrets. Take a shot.”