Every time Renvy Pittman travels to the University of Mississippi she makes a point to visit her favorite students – the entering freshmen selected to participate in the Grove Scholars program.
In 2014, support from Pittman – a Los Angeles, California, resident and UM alumna – provided scholarships and programming to 12 students interested in pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). These students became the first Grove Scholars, and the program has been near to Pittman’s heart ever since.
Now, the Jackson, Mississippi, native wants the scholars to have a space of their own. With a recent $175,000 gift, Pittman enabled renovations to begin at George Hall – the newly designated home for the FASTrack Learning Community and Grove Scholars on the Oxford campus.
“My hope is that this gift will help create beautiful spaces toward which students will gravitate and feel comfortable spending time together, interacting with each other and with FASTrack and Grove Scholars staff,” Pittman said, adding that offices for FASTrack and Grove Scholars staff were previously located in three buildings.
“An additional goal of the renovation is to create an optimal working environment for the staff,” she said. “We feel the more time the students are close to the staff, the better we will be able to support them. In George Hall, we can bring everyone together.”
The building, named for the late U.S. Sen. J.P.Z. George, was constructed in 1920 and repurposed in 1949 to be a men’s dormitory. It was converted in 1973 to house the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the Speech and Hearing Center, which have recently relocated to UM’s South Oxford Center.
“We had been waiting for a building to become available in the center of campus and George Hall fits the bill,” Pittman said.
Second- and third-story renovations began in the spring and will be used for the current academic year, giving students temporary spaces for both independent and group study. First floor renovations – scheduled to begin in 2020 – will provide a colorful, welcoming place for students to enjoy comfortable communal furnishings and state-of-the-art technology.
“Almost all of the first floor will be devoted to space for students, particularly the open community space. This is what we are most excited about,” said Maura Scully Murry, director of FASTrack Learning Community.
“Our primary focus is to help first-year students transition successfully into college,” she continued. “This new space helps us connect students so they feel an immediate sense of belonging and academic purpose. Now, we are just across the street from our Living Learning Community in Burns Hall with new opportunities to integrate the academic experience with students’ daily college lives.”
FASTrack serves over 400 new students annually who benefit from smaller and enhanced classes, individualized advising and mentoring, and a community of supportive peers. FASTrack encompasses an array of unique program options including Grove Scholars Program, Living Learning Community, student leadership opportunities, Ole Miss Opportunity (OMO) support, and FASTrack summer scholarships.
Holly Reynolds, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, shares Murry’s enthusiasm for centralizing the programs: “We greatly appreciate Renvy’s generosity in supporting our scholars through the years and particularly her interest in establishing a place they can call their own. This will mean the world to them.”
The Grove Scholars program has received support from Pittman over the past six years, serving nearly 100 students in that time. Grove Scholars helps improve students’ chances of graduating. It all begins with a summer bridge program for incoming first-year participants to take a math and science course for academic credit. Students, all of whom continue in the program through graduation, also are offered tutoring, social events and exposure to labs and lectures on campus.
To participate, students who have an interest in STEM or health-related professions must first qualify for Ole Miss Opportunity (OMO) – a program for lower income Mississippi students who have a high school GPA of at least 3.0.
“Most students experience a significant culture shock when arriving at college for their first year,” said E. Gray Flora IV, director of Grove Scholars and senior academic mentor for FASTrack.
“Grove Scholars assists in the transition to college by bringing students on campus the summer before their freshman year and surrounding them with support from staff and a group of highly motivated peers. This pivotal time spent on campus in the summer allows students to feel more comfortable socially and academically at our university before the larger wave of students arrives in late August.”
Flora said Pittman’s gifts to the university will benefit countless generations of scholars.
“Her vision and generosity are extraordinary and, quite frankly, they’ve been transformational in the lives of so many young Mississippians. She has laid the groundwork for those in our program to flourish, and we are all just so grateful to her,” he said.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, you can have access to the University of Mississippi,’ but it’s another thing to give OMO recipients equitable resources to really be able to thrive at a major public university. That is what Ms. Pittman does for our students.”
An interior designer and an active member of the UM Foundation board of directors, Pittman is also involved in many areas of her community, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her two grandsons.
To help support the FASTrack or Grove Scholars programs, contact Denson Hollis, executive director of development, at 662-915-5092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the FASTrack Learning Community, go to http://fastrack.olemiss.edu/.
For more information and student profiles, visit Grove Scholars online: http://grovescholars.olemiss.edu.
By Bill Dabney