Members of the VMI family have always looked for ways to help the Institute and cadets. In fact, the day after their commencement in 1842, VMI’s first graduates formed what is today’s VMI Alumni Association. About a decade later, alumni began raising money for scholarships for cadets. Since then, giving in support of scholarships – whether by establishing new endowments, donating to existing endowments or, in the case of the VMI Keydet Club, making annual gifts that fund grant-in-aid support for cadet-athletes – has been a popular way (if not the most popular way) for alumni and friends to support VMI.
“Throughout my 40 years at the VMI Foundation,” said Warren J. “Buddy” Bryan ’71, VMI Foundation chief operating officer, “the popularity of providing for scholarships has never waned.” Asked for the possible reasons for this, Bryan responded, “Many alumni are grateful for their experience at VMI. They’ll tell me – well, they’ll tell just about anyone – that they owe their success in life to VMI. They want to be sure that young people can have the same type of formative experience. Also, because the basics of VMI life don’t change much, alumni have a strong bond with cadets and vice versa.”
According to Bryan, there is another reason that many alumni focus their philanthropy on scholarships. “Often, a privately-funded scholarship was what allowed them to come to VMI or stay at VMI. And out of gratitude, they decide to play the same role in the life of a cadet.” Bryan illustrated that point with the example of the late Robert B. Rust Jr. ’934, whose $14.5 million bequest – the largest such gift ever received by VMI – was earmarked entirely for scholarships. “Mr. Rust was close to leaving VMI because his family lacked the necessary wherewithal, but he was able to stay because of a scholarship established in memory of a cadet who died in the 1880s,” Bryan recalled. “He never forgot that, and he was grateful for it. And Mr. Rust’s example – in which gratitude begat exceptional generosity – is hardly unique.”
For Brig. Gen. Jeffrey G. Smith Jr. ’79, former deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty, ensuring that financial considerations never prevent a deserving young man or woman from attending VMI is a means to help the Institute accomplish its mission. “The Institute is meant to produce leaders in the professions that are important to the security of the nation and its long-term prosperity. If a prospective cadet, who has the intellectual ability and the aptitude of character to succeed at VMI and, therefore, gain entrance into these professions, is forced by financial concerns to go to another school, that’s a missed opportunity for him or her and a missed opportunity for the nation.”
Scholarships awarded on the basis of academic merit also draw support from the VMI family. These scholarships attract candidates with a potential for high academic achievement to VMI and allows the Institute to reward cadets who achieve academic success. According to Smith, the cadets who are awarded merit-based scholarships also “promote the positive development of our academic program.”
“Faculty members routinely tell me that these cadets invigorate a classroom and elevate the tenor of discussions within them. They demand more of their professors, which sharpens our faculty’s edge,” he explained. But it’s not just the faculty who benefit from the cadets. “By not being content with restricting their education to the classroom and always looking to broaden their intellectual horizons, they set an example which provokes the broader development of their fellow cadets.”
As VMI is one of the smallest colleges playing NCAA sports at the Division I level, the chances are quite good that any cadet you meet participates in one of VMI’s 18 intercollegiate sports, from football, rifle, basketball to swimming. The chances are quite good that the cadet-athlete you meet receives support from an endowed athletic scholarship or from the funds that alumni and friends entrust to the VMI Keydet Club through the Keydet Club Scholarship Fund or team-specific funds that support cadet-athletes associated with one sport. Dr. Dave Diles, VMI director of intercollegiate athletics, considers such support to be money well spent. “When anyone supports our cadet-athletes in this way, he or she is making a wise investment in an extraordinary group of young people who take on the demands common to all cadets and those related to competing at the highest level of college sports. You cannot come away from meeting these young people without being impressed by their ability to balance these demands and excel not only in their chosen sport but also in the classroom and barracks.”
Athletic scholarships, according to Diles, are foundational for current intercollegiate programming and the future of VMI’s athletics. “There is a great atmosphere around VMI athletics right now. I believe people recognize that we have coaches and staff committed to serving the broad mission of the Institute and not only focusing on their particular sport or area of responsibility,” said Diles. “Exceptional coaches, who are great teachers and leaders, have instilled a winning spirit in their teams, and most importantly, there is an expectation of success. Without the donors who make annual gifts to the Keydet Club and those who endow scholarships, our coaches would not have the resources required to attract and reward the type of young people who will meet our expectations of excellence in the entirety of the VMI experience.”
Whatever their purpose, all scholarships at VMI share one attribute, which is perhaps the most important of all: They provide young people with the opportunity to receive a truly remarkable education that is meant to transform them into honorable, purposeful and capable citizen-soldiers.
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