On a sunny August morning, speaking over the ever-present Interstate 81 traffic interspersed with the shouts of elementary school-age day-campers, contagiously cheerful Cadet LeAndrew “Drew” Jefferson ’21 explained that he spent the summer living in the Bushong house, and initially didn’t realize he would be the sole cadet working – and living – at the battlefield.
Last spring, he was selected from a pool of applicants for the Shaara Scholar Internship. The program, endowed by renowned novelist Jeff Shaara in 1999, is administered through the VMI Museum System. Cadets apply each spring, and the internship is awarded to one cadet who then spends the summer as a jack-of-all-trades assisting the staff at the New Market Battlefield.
The Bushong house has many modern amenities, Jefferson said, but air conditioning is not among them. The house does have a modern kitchen, plus a washing machine, dryer, indoor plumbing and bathroom facilities.
Each morning, after sleeping until 8 a.m. – or, as Jefferson called it, “as late as possible” – he donned his uniform and began opening the museum. After completing this morning routine, Jefferson’s days followed manifold paths. Some days, he assisted with museum research. Others found him washing windows, setting up tents or teaching day-campers. Nearly every day, he gave tours. When he tried to explain the Shaara Scholar Internship to his parents, they asked, “What are you? A curator? A janitor?”
Jefferson’s reply to them? “I am all that.”
The Shaara Scholar Internship, which includes a $4,000 stipend, met needs on several fronts for Jefferson. An international studies major with interests in history and an innate curiosity for learning, he applied for several internships last spring. Internships, however, tend to be low-to-no-paying positions. “I realized I had to get real and start applying to grocery stores, or McDonald’s,” he smiled. Learning that he was selected as the 2019 Shaara Scholar solved the issue of earning wages, while allowing Jefferson to continue to grow in both general and VMI-specific knowledge as well as learning the fundamentals of museum operations.
Giving tours occupied a large chunk of Jefferson’s time. He was well-rounded in the New Market Battle. “There are three tenets of being here: You want to know about the Bushong family, the cadets who participated here and the town of New Market. Those can give you three basic legs to have a better understanding of the battle.”
Grinning, he said he quickly learned to ask if there were any history teachers or professors in the tour group. “You want to make sure you’re solid – because you never know who you’re going to be giving a tour to.”
Becoming more serious, he noted that he is acutely conscious that he was a living, breathing representative of the Institute. And, due to circumstances entirely beyond his control, people on his tours found him intriguing.
“When people come here, they have a lot of questions: An African American cadet, his name is Jefferson … and he’s at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War,” Jefferson said. “This is a good way to bring a different perspective into the lessons and the truths of this battle, and of VMI as well. It’s critical that I take the right steps in discussing history and discussing how it relates to today, especially at VMI.”
Leading a somewhat “monkish” existence – the Bushong house also lacks Wi-Fi – was beneficial, Jefferson said. Being alone gave him time to “learn history and get the story right. And not only get it right, but I don’t have to go to Twitter or Snapchat.” He spoke to hundreds of people each week, and simply told them “the truth” and “history.”
“That makes huge impacts on people,” Jefferson said. He has received letters, thank-you cards, books – and even the occasional $20-bill stuffed into a handshake. The latter were promptly re-stuffed – into the donation box at the visitor center.
During the academic year, nearly every waking minute of a VMI cadet’s time is accounted for on a matrix. Having an immense amount of free time, much of it alone, was “a good lesson,” Jefferson said, noting that he has experienced “the best of both worlds,” with highly regulated time while at VMI, and the chance to put time management skills to use over the summer.
Jefferson brings his summer lessons-learned to the Corps, where he is now a sergeant, as well as being part of both the Cadet Superintendent’s Advisory Board and the remedial PT staff. He is contracted to commission in the Marine Corps when he graduates in 2021, would like to pursue advanced degrees in political science and perhaps teach at the college level.
Editor’s Note: The Shaara Scholar Intern program began indirectly in the late 1980s, when “Gods and Generals” author Jeff Shaara was visiting VMI. Walking with VMI Museum System director Col. Keith Gibson ’77, the two men noted the guns on the Parade Ground were deteriorating. Shaara offered the funds to restore the cannons. A few years later, looking for other opportunities to help VMI, Shaara worked with the VMI Foundation and eventually endowed what is today called the Shaara Scholar Internship.
“I like that cadets work and study at the New Market Battlefield. That ‘hands-on’ aspect gives them a much more valuable experience to carry into the future,” Shaara said in a 2012 interview with the VMI Foundation’s Scott Belliveau ’83. “Having a cadet at the Battlefield also enriches visitors’ experiences by allowing them to meet a current member of the same Corps of Cadets that showed such courage in May 1864.”
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist