In 1992, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets saw its enrollment drop to about 400, the lowest since 1980. In 1995, the corps introduced the Emerging Leader Scholarship program, and enrollment has been on the rise ever since.
When cadets arrived on campus for the fall 2011 semester, the corps welcomed 383 freshmen, the largest incoming class since 1969. The corps began the fall semester with 949 cadets, and is nearing the university's goal of 1,000. The Emerging Leader Scholarship program has played a significant role in that success.
"The Emerging Leader Scholarship program recognizes the importance and value of the growing leaders of our nation," said Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart, commandant of the Corps of Cadets. "It is a primary resource for us to attract and reward the types of emerging leaders that we would like to have as part of the corps."
The program awards about 200 merit-based scholarships each year to first-year cadets -- 100 for in-state students and 100 for out-of-state students.
In-state recipients of the Emerging Leader Scholarship get $2,000 a year for a total of $8,000 over four years, while out-of-state recipients -- who are charged higher tuition -- get $3,000 a year for a total of $12,000 over four years, assuming the cadets meet and maintain a certain set of criteria.
One special characteristic of the program is that many of the scholarships are actively sponsored by alumni, who get to meet and build relationships with the cadets they help.
"The donors really get an opportunity to see the value that they have brought, and the cadets obviously have an opportunity to express their thanks in a very personal way," Fullhart said.
Ray Thrift, a member of the Class of 1960, and his wife, Ellen Thrift, sponsor one of the scholarships. Thrift, who was in the Corps of Cadets and served in the U.S. Army, spent more than 30 years working in higher education, and sympathizes with the challenges facing young people today.
"I know how hard it is to go to college; I know the sacrifices they have to make; I know what it costs," Ray Thrift said. "We're just really pleased to help some young people go through Virginia Tech. The Emerging Leader Scholarship is something we really believe in, we support, and we are glad to be a part of."
Sean Grindlay of Chesapeake, Va., a senior majoring in economics within the Pamplin College of Business, is the third cadet the Thrifts have sponsored through the program.
He has known the Thrifts since his first year on campus, and counts them among his family. Grindlay said he has grown especially fond of the "Cowboy Cookies" Ellen Thrift has baked for him over the years.
"I love my 'donor parents,'" said Grindlay with a broad smile. "They write me encouraging letters and we email back and forth. Mrs. Thrift will often send me a box cookies or bring me some, and those things disappear so fast when I bring them back to the dorms."
Relationships like those between Grindlay and his sponsors illustrate how the Emerging Leader Scholarship program has not only inspired donors to support their alma mater, it has created a bridge across generations of Hokies.
"It's been fun to watch [Sean] develop and see all the things he's involved in," Ray Thrift said at a corps breakfast earlier this semester. "It's helped me see how far the corps has come since we graduated."
When Grindlay earns his degree in May, his donor parents will likely be there to congratulate him as he embarks on a military career in the U.S. Air Force.
And it's a safe bet that Ellen Thrift will bring with her a fresh batch of her famous Cowboy Cookies.