February 27, 2024

Rita Thompson: Leading Extraordinary Scholars

They might never have gone to college at all. Yet next month, seven students with the Rappahannock Scholars Program will walk across the stage on Ball Circle and become graduates of the University of Mary Washington.

They are the latest success stories in a program that began a decade ago. The partnership between UMW and six high schools in Virginia’s Northern Neck makes higher education possible for underrepresented students.

In the last decade, Rita Thompson, the program’s director, has watched Rappahannock Scholars grow into a competitive and successful pathway for students who are the first in their families to go to college or who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Yet they attend UMW full time, often while holding down 20- to 30-hour work weeks and helping their families back home.

Q: How did you become the director of the Rappahannock Scholars Program?
A: Originally, I was the senior assistant for the dean of admissions at UMW. The program was developed because we wanted to see more underrepresented students at the University of Mary Washington and we know that the Northern Neck area was an untapped resource

Q: How has the Rappahannock Scholars Program changed over the last decade?
A: We have seen the relationship between the university and high schools in six counties of the Northern Neck developing a strong partnership. Families in the Northern Neck now look to UMW as a real opportunity for a change in the trajectory of their children’s lives and their destiny.

Q: Tell us about your role as director.
A: I build relationships with donors, families, school administrators and the community – but most importantly with the students. I lead by example. I teach them what to expect in college and how to survive the college culture.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: The relationships I have built with students, parents, my staff, school administrators and my colleagues, who all participated in this journey. I have no doubt these scholars will continue to challenge themselves and become great leaders, family members and outstanding educators for others.

Q: What is your favorite part of working with students?
A: Seeing them blossom into the people they are striving to become. Seeing them take a single step on their journey with confidence in achieving their dream.

Q: What can you say about this year’s graduating scholars?
A: This year’s students are amazing. UMW is not an easy school to do well in academically. They have taken the challenge and they have succeeded.

Q: Is there a motto that you live by?
A: “A thousand miles begins with a single step.” That’s the program’s motto. You work hard, and you will be able to achieve your goals. I am their coach, mentor and a lifelong friend.