Thursday was a picturesque day. The sun shown through fluffy white clouds, illuminating the rolling hills and rivers of Pocahontas County.
It was the perfect day for West Virginia University president Dr. Gordon Gee to kick off his summer tour of the state’s 55 counties.
Dr. Gee, and members of his staff, including Dr. Ken Blemings, Dean of the WVU Honors College, toured Pocahontas County High School and visited with students and school staff. The group also enjoyed a visit to the robotics classroom where juniors Max O’Ganian and Mason Solliday did a demonstrated with the schools Vex and Lego robots.
Gee’s visit was two-fold – the kick off of his state tour and a presentation to graduating senior Sarah Warder, who is valedictorian of the Class of 2022.
School was dismissed to the football field where Gee congratulated Warder on being named a Foundation Scholar, the most prestigious honor awarded to students attending WVU.
Computer science and engineering teacher Laurel Dilley explained the award and the obstacles Warder went through to be named a Foundation Scholar.
“West Virginia University has an incoming freshman class of around five thousand,” Dilley said. “Each year, they pick the top twenty West Virginia seniors to receive an incredibly prestigious award called the Buck Lew Scholarship. The twenty Buck Lew Scholars chosen are considered the leaders of this class of five thousand and receive a forty-thousand dollar scholarship to pursue their studies at WVU.”
Of those 20 Buck Lew Scholars, 15 attended AAA high schools; four attended AA high schools; and one – Sarah Warder – attended Single A PCHS.
“The amount of extra help and resources that many of the nineteen other Buck Lew Scholars had during their education experience is world’s more generous than what we are able to offer in a small rural school system,” Dilley said. “However, the fact that this individual was able to compete at this level successfully, shows just how special this individual and the folks in this school system and community are.”
The 20 Buck Lew Scholars went through a rigorous set of interviews at WVU to be considered for the most elite undergraduate scholarship WVU offers, the Foundation Scholarship.
Five of those individuals were named Foundation Scholars, and they will receive all expenses paid for four years to WVU, plus $4,500 to study abroad or to perform research.
“To my knowledge, no one in Pocahontas County has ever received this honor until now,” Dilley said. “Some of you may be sitting here thinking ‘this will never be me.’ The point I hope you leave with today is that this individual has truly pushed herself to be all that she can be. She has taken risks and challenged herself. She has done uncomfortable and hard things. Most importantly, she’s kept working when she’s failed.
“Any of you have the potential to do this with your talents in your own way,” she continued. “I hope this young lady’s example will serve as an inspiration to us all. Sarah Warder, we are so proud of you.”
After senior Rachel Burns introduced Gee, stating that his overriding message to students is “College is about discovery and finding one’s purpose,” Gee expressed his gratitude and praise for Warder and the school system.
“I am really honored to be here,” he said. “The most beautiful county in the state. It’s true.
“I must say, you can be a fangirl, but I’m a fanboy,” he added, addressing Burns. “I’ve fallen in love with all of you guys. I really have. Great sense of place and purpose and a lot of joy – small high school with a real belief in what you’re about in your future and resiliency and all the things that I think are characteristic of this wonderful state.”
Gee then asked Warder to stand by his side as he congratulated her on being named a Foundation Scholar.
“Sarah – you all know her,” he said. “She is a really smart, fun person. Sarah we are so proud of you. Let me say this to all of you. There are as many geniuses in West Virginia as there are in California. We need to believe in ourselves. Sarah believes in herself. She believes in you. And she is an example of what we can accomplish in West Virginia.
“Sarah, we love and appreciate you,” he added.
Gee then turned the microphone over to Warder, who was not expecting to give a speech. Cheered on by her classmates, Warder simply said, “Horns down!”
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that from a scholar,” Gee said, laughing.
Blemings also addressed the students – both the seniors and underclassmen –encouraging them to attend college.
“As Dean of Honors College and working in biochemistry where I work with a lot of high end students, I always appreciated the students who came from some place fancy and they had nice cars and nice things and they went to private schools, but it’s also as equally rewarding if not more rewarding to work with rural students and first generation college students, being a first generation college student myself,” he said.
“My dad didn’t graduate high school and he said, ‘Ken you should go to college,’ and that had a really big effect on my life, obviously,” he continued. “So I want to encourage you to think about going to college. We’d love to see you at WVU. You’d be well supported there.”
Blemings also encouraged the students to consider being part of the honors college.
The event ended with Gee posing with students and staff for the coveted “Dr. Gee selfie.”