Robyn S. Hadley, founder and executive director of the “What’s After High School?” program in Burlington, N.C., has been named associate vice chancellor and director of the prestigious John B. Ervin Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis, announced Sharon Stahl, PhD, vice chancellor for students.
A Rhodes Scholar who has been recognized by the White House and U.S. Department of Education for her work in preparing students for success after high school, Hadley will join the university Feb. 24.
She will be only the second director of the more than a quarter century-old scholars program. The late James E. McLeod served as director of the program from its inception in 1986 until his death on Sept. 6, 2011.
Holden Thorp, PhD, provost, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of chemistry, in Arts & Sciences, and of medicine, said that Hadley “brings an exceptional background in college access and student success to our efforts to recruit students from all backgrounds and ensure that they thrive at Washington University.”
Hadley founded the “What’s After High School?” program in the Alamance-Burlington School System, a low-wealth district in North Carolina, where Hadley grew up and where her mother worked as a school secretary for 40 years.
The program begins talking to children in elementary school about college and options after high school. It also teaches parents how to help their children through the college admissions process and through college.
In 2012, the White House recognized Hadley as a “Champion of Change” for her work, which has increased scholarship dollars and college enrollment in the mostly rural Alamance-Burlington district.
“Robyn is passionate about education, young people and creating opportunities for success for students,” Stahl said. “She understands the difference that a community of scholarship, leadership and service, like the Ervin Scholars Program, can provide for a student coming into a university community like Washington University.
“Her understanding comes from direct personal experience,” said Stahl, “but also from her professional commitment to the programs that she has developed.”
Matt Holton, Ervin Class of ’95, served as a co-chair on the search committee. “The committee was looking for a candidate, among other things, who could serve as a mentor to current scholars, effectively collaborate across multiple departments university-wide, foster strong engagement with the Ervin alumni base, and establish a clear vision for the future of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program and in turn execute against that vision,” said Holton, a senior business leader at MasterCard Inc.
“In my interactions with Robyn, I have found her to be very approachable, someone who has numerous good ideas but is as interested in ideas coming from others, and someone who has tremendous drive and enthusiasm for the work that she does.”
A legacy of scholarship
The Ervin Scholars Program awards scholarships to incoming freshmen who have demonstrated exceptional intellectual and leadership achievements and have shown a strong commitment to community service and bringing diverse people together.
The full scholarship is renewable for all four years of undergraduate study and includes a stipend to cover living expenses.
The program is named for John B. Ervin, PhD, who was the dean of the School of Continuing Education (now University College in Arts & Sciences) from 1968-1977 and was the first African-American dean at WUSTL.
Throughout his life, Ervin wrote about the importance of education and how it led to a life of leadership committed to the improvement of the human condition, which the program seeks to instill in each Ervin Scholar.
Hadley started volunteering to help students apply to college as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a member of the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholars, a program with similarities to WUSTL’s Ervin Scholars Program.
The late Mebane Pritchett, director of the Morehead-Cain Scholars Program, was an important mentor for Hadley. “He played a role for me as a college student in the same way that Dean McLeod, from what I have read, played for many of the Ervin Scholars,” Hadley said.
McLeod mentored hundreds of Ervin Scholars over his more than 25-year tenure as program director. As vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, he mentored thousands more.
“Like Dean McLeod, Robyn cares deeply about young people and recognizes that their four years in this community will shape their lives and lives of others,” Stahl said.
“She understands the importance of coming to know students by name and story and the importance of creating a community that supports, encourages and challenges students to be their best, do their best, and expect the best of each other and of all of us who are part of the Washington University community.”
In 1988, after graduating from UNC and attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, Hadley joined JAMNC Export Import Group in Hampton, Va., where years later she became president and chief operating officer.
She continued her volunteer work, critiquing college essays and advising families about what to look for on a college tour.
In 2004, Hadley returned to North Carolina to take care of her mother, who was sick but since has recovered. While there, the owner of JAMNC died, and Hadley had to make a decision.
“That’s when I began to focus more on education,” Hadley said. “I asked myself if there was a way to transition from a volunteer and advocate to working more in the nonprofit arena or in public or private education.”
In 2004, she and a group of friends founded “YES I CAN,” a one-time, faith-based college access program at Children’s Chapel United Church of Christ in Graham, N.C. It won the Howard N. Lee Institute for Equity and Opportunity in Education “Champion in Equity and Opportunity in Education” award. The program has continued to grow and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer.
That program led her to talks with her former school district about her idea of the “What’s After High School?” initiative. They were interested in such a proposal, but didn’t have much funding to offer.
Hadley launched the “What’s After High School?” program in 2005 with the superintendent’s support and started looking for funding from private donors, foundations and the U.S. Department of Education. Over time, the program received enough funding for long-term operations and to hire a staff of four.
“To come in as a consultant with an initiative that had no budget and to build it into a program that now has several employees, a very significant budget and is nationally recognized, you have to have a vision and a great team,” Hadley said. “You have to be organized, you have to listen and you have to be very, very persistent.”
Hadley’s work earned her recognition from the Burlington Rotary Club, where she was named Woman of the Year in 2012. The “What’s After High School?” program also won a Magna award from the American School Board Journal for “Best Practices and Innovative Programs that Advance Student Learning.”
Hadley, whose program will continue in North Carolina after she departs, is looking forward to working with the Ervin Scholars Program.
“What excites and inspires me is the opportunity to nurture students, and in words that I’ve read continually about Wash. U., to get to know them ‘by name and by story,’” Hadley said. “The Ervin Scholars Program and the university can help students to become what they never dreamed they could be or to become what they always dreamed possible.”