Skip to main content

Drawing the Elite

Ridley program helps diversify student body

Micah Watson Jon Combs

Micah Watson (Col ’18) was the kind of elite high school student that college admissions deans love. She had a stellar academic record and an exceptional history of extracurricular activity, especially in drama. She began starring in plays and musicals in middle school, and the drama department of her high school in Wichita, Kansas, staged plays she wrote.

And love her they did—Watson also had offers from Brown, Georgetown, Vassar and Yale. So, why did she choose the University of Virginia? She points to a variety of factors, including the professors she met with and her acceptance to the Echols Scholars program, which lets gifted students design their own curricula.

There was also the offer of a $40,000-per-year scholarship from the Ridley Scholarship Fund, an Alumni Association-supported program that helps the University compete with other top schools to attract elite African-American students. “I relished the opportunity to be surrounded by such gifted, motivated, and forward-thinking black students,” Watson says. “Coming from a predominantly white school in Kansas, this was the sort of environment that I was looking for and felt I could thrive in.”

Since its inception in 1987, the Ridley Fund has supported more than 300 African-American students, and it has built up an $11.3 million endowment to help diversify UVA with merit-based scholarships. For its 30th anniversary, Ridley seeks to raise another $2 million for its war chest.

It will need it. According to Ridley board chair Doug Smith, the program—and University—lost top candidates last year to Columbia, Stanford and Yale. “If another school offers a student a full scholarship, they’re likely to go that route,” he says.

UVA faces an added challenge: As a public school, UVA can’t offer financial awards whose primary goal is to foster racial diversity. Instead, it must rely on private sources.

That’s where the Ridley Fund comes in. Each year, it awards three four-year renewable scholarships to incoming African-American students that cover most—but not all—of a student’s annual tuition. Candidates are chosen by UVA’s Admissions Office in collaboration with Ridley.

The stakes for diversifying are high, according to Maurice Apprey, dean of UVA’s Office of African-American Affairs. He notes that “diversity as an educational value is a settled question for many forward-thinking and successful organizations,” and that achieving greater diversity is a vital element of the University’s mission. “Let us not undereducate our students, black or white, by having limited perspectives in spaces where learning occurs or where decisions are made,” Apprey writes in an email.

The power of engaged African-American students like Watson was apparent last fall, when she directed The Black Monologues, a play written and produced by black UVA students. According to the Cavalier Daily, the play proved so popular that its two premiere performances filled the 200-seat Helms Theater, so the cast and crew staged three additional performances.

“I hope that black students were able to see reflections of themselves on stage, as we explored the intricacies, joys, struggles and diversity found within our community, as we proclaimed that blackness is not a monolith,” Watson says. “I also hope that we posed questions that caused black students to think critically about the state of our community and that non-black students were able to get a glimpse into our lives and gain a better understanding of who we are as a people.”