Amy Cortes grew up amid farmland in the Shenandoah Valley, in a small town 15 miles from the stately campus of James Madison University. For much of her childhood, Cortes couldn’t picture herself as a student there, walking among the academic buildings made of bluestone or lounging on the manicured quad, mountain ranges in the distance.
She visited Harrisonburg often — her church was there — and she found kinship in the city’s Hispanic community. But all of the adults in her life worked in manual labor or the service industry, in poultry plants or cleaning hotels. She figured her life would follow a similar trajectory — graduate from high school, work in a factory.
Then, a seventh-grade teacher told her about something new, something called the Valley Scholars. Apply, the teacher told the student. “This could turn into something great,” the teacher said.
“She was doing her job as a teacher,” Cortes said, “definitely looking after her students.”
So Cortes applied, hoping to join an initiative to steer students from low-income households to become the first in their families to attend college. Cortes would have to make a five-year commitment, which pushed her toward the most demanding high school classes, required monthly meetings and sent her on weekend field trips.
If she maintained at least a 3.25 grade-point average, followed a rigorous curriculum and got accepted to James Madison, she would earn a scholarship covering tuition.
Near the end of seventh grade, after Cortes finished the intimidating application process for the Valley Scholars, she received an email.
“Why are you happy?” Cortes recalled her mother asking.
The middle school student shared that she had been accepted.
Mother pulled daughter into a hug and said, “Now, you have to make more of this.”
But could she do it?
James Madison sits in a region steeped in troubles faced by rural communities across the country and is home to a significant population of working-class immigrants and refugees.
“We needed to make more proactive efforts in our own backyard,” said Jonathan R. Alger, president of the university. “There were a lot of students in our area who simply thought that college was not an option for them.”
That desire gave rise to the Valley Scholars. Students were plucked from across the Shenandoah Valley, from schools with large populations of children who receive free or reduced-price school meals — a proxy for need.
There are 188 Valley Scholars from nearly two dozen middle and high schools in seven school systems across the region. Principals, teachers and guidance counselors identify promising middle school students. Each year, the university receives more than 100 applications for 44 slots.
Students are assessed on grades, test scores, a short essay and interviews. Families fill out a lengthy application, answering questions about income and Medicaid eligibility, another indicator of familial need. The university pays for the program with money from donors, including local corporations and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
Shaun Mooney, director of Valley Scholars, said he fears that students in rural Virginia — including towns near the James Madison campus — are falling behind peers who attend school in suburban and urban neighborhoods. Advanced classes are sparse on some rural campuses, and some of the highest-performing students are drawn away to competitive magnet schools.
“Rural communities are not seeing the same levels of economic investment. They’re not seeing the same levels of economic attainment,” he said. “Especially in the South and Mid-Atlantic, there’s a widening gap . . . of opportunity.”
Thirty-five middle school students, including Cortes, were accepted into the program’s inaugural class. Thirty-two completed the program, and all are attending college in Virginia, including the 26 students at James Madison.
Cortes is among them. She made it.
Oscar Moreno-Tenorio, from Waynesboro, was another member of that inaugural class. The second oldest of five, Moreno wants to set an example for his younger siblings. Neither of his parents attended college — his father works in a lumber yard; his mother cares for the children.
“I don’t want them to end up working at a job where they’re unhappy,” Moreno-Tenorio said of his siblings.
The Fort Defiance High School band was between songs, and Cortes, a clarinetist, was preparing for the next number when a teacher pulled her aside. She was brought to family members who, between tears, told Cortes her father — a roofer — had fallen 30 feet onto concrete while on a job.
The family rushed to a hospital in Charlottesville, where they learned he had a fractured face, broken hands and minor spinal fractures. The accident unfolded as Cortes was about to take final exams her sophomore year.
She made hour-long trips to the Charlottesville hospital each day, finding it difficult to concentrate on school work as she worried about her father.
“It was something so shocking and just hard to deal with,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to study. I was too sad.”
She found comfort from other Valley Scholars, buoyed by their supportive messages and motivating words. Mooney reminded Cortes that the program was there for more than academic support — that he, the other program organizers and her fellow scholars were family, too.
Pierre Mbala, an affable 18-year-old, relied on two of his classmates at Harrisonburg High School for rides to Valley Scholars meetings. They have texted in a group chat since eighth grade, trading reminders about deadlines and meetings.
Mbala and his family arrived in the United States from Congo in 2004, after they were granted asylum, eventually settling in Harrisonburg. Immigrants made up nearly 10 percent of the population in the Harrisonburg metro area in 2016, according to research from New American Economy, an organization that advocates for immigration policies that lead to economic growth. About 8 percent of those immigrants were thought to be refugees.
The 18-year-old abides by a mantra his parents imparted, a phrase in Swahili that translates to: “Don’t forget where you come from.”
More than a year ago, Mbala’s father shared a photo of a young girl in Congo hauling a bucket of rocks from a mine, presumably so cobalt could be extracted. Moved by the image, the teenager used $40 he earned from his job at a hotel to purchase bracelets and necklaces made in Congo. He resold the jewelry to classmates at Harrisonburg High School and to anyone who was interested.
He uses the money to support people in Congo who are in need. Eventually, Mbala wants to provide more for young people in his homeland who “don’t have the same educational outcomes as me, who live in poverty, who don’t receive adequate nutrition.”
“That picture just struck me in the heart,” he said. “Something lit in me that said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
After a night of restless sleep, Mbala and his mother packed their car for the short drive to campus. They stopped for services at their church, where congregants sent him and other college-bound teens off with prayer.
Mbala was familiar with the James Madison campus, having frequented it for Valley Scholars meetings. But moving into his dorm felt like arriving anew.
He has gained a reputation among peers as a “social butterfly” and cherishes meeting new people and learning from different perspectives.
But he has also yearned for a community on campus he can relate to on a different level and plans to join the Black Student Alliance. He hadn’t seen any other black male students who are freshmen in his honors program at James Madison and noticed that, on campus, he sticks out “as a sore thumb.”
Days before the start of the school year, the 18-year-old found himself on a trip with other honors students to the sprawling grounds of Montpelier, the home of the nation’s fourth president. Mbala was grouped with students whose first stop was an exhibit examining slavery and its enduring consequences.
The morning was heavy with reflection.
Students toured the reconstructed South Yard, a part of the property where enslaved people lived and labored. Enslaved people made up 39 percent of Virginia’s population at one point in the 1790s, one feature in the exhibit showed. A tour guide pressed the young adults to consider that Madison’s legacy is inextricable from the more than 300 people his family held in bondage.
For Mbala, stories of families separated by slavery conjured comparisons to the family separations unfolding in recent months at the U.S.-Mexico border. Mbala later said he was reminded of the way families in Congo have been torn apart by militias that recruit children to work in mines — a fate Mbala said his parents sought to spare him and his brothers from by emigrating.
“God blessed us,” he said. “They didn’t want me and my five brothers to be put in a situation where we could miss an opportunity in education.”
Moments of levity broke through the hard conversations at Montpelier. At one point, students began comparing the sizes of their dorm rooms, and before long, the conversation landed on Mbala’s nascent jewelry business.
Mbala plucked bracelets from a bag that rested on his hip, pulling out a beaded black bracelet with charms.
“The symbols all mean different things,” he explained. “The angel wing is protection. The tree is virtue. The flower is transformation. The hand is wisdom, and the horseshoe is luck.”
A week into school, Cortes, a kinesiology major, senses life will be much different. She lives on a residence hall floor with other honors students, traveling as a group to the dining hall or studying together in the lounge.
She said she’s looking forward to honing her public-speaking skills in a communications class. She’s most worried about passing her first couple of exams — that they will prove more challenging than the tests she encountered in high school.
She hasn’t spent much face-to-face time with other Valley Scholars. But they regularly check in with each other in the group chat. And there’s an understanding, Cortes said, that “we’re here for each other.”
One night shortly after moving on campus, Cortes and two of her best friends from the program sat in a dorm room, chatting.
“Our dream is actually coming true,” one of Cortes’s friends said.
Together, they marveled over having, finally, arrived.