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Investments Sought to Expand Proven UM Program
Ole Miss alumna and donor Renvy Pittman, center, recently was on the Oxford campus and visited with Grove Scholars Jaylia Jones of Grenada, from left, Andre’onna Orange of Waveland, Helena Hansen of Carriere and Ivy Nguyen of Ocean Springs. The Grove Scholars program works to close the gap between access and equity for students before their freshman year through graduation from the university.

The University of Mississippi Grove Scholars program — which helps Mississippians from underrepresented demographic groups earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or health care — is growing in numbers as it enriches lives and makes the state’s workforce more competitive.

“It is our intent for Grove Scholars to become a nationally recognized program that will be a model for other universities across the country,” said Lee Cohen, dean of the UM College of Liberal Arts.

Grove Scholars qualify for the Ole Miss Opportunity scholarship, a program that guarantees eligible Mississippi students receive financial aid if their family’s annual income is $40,000 or below. By employing a cohort model, an incentive structure and a summer bridge program, the Grove Scholars program works to close the gap between access and equity for students before their freshman year through graduation.

The program has garnered $2.1 million in support from UM alumna Renvy Pittman of Los Angeles, California, and she has just committed a planned gift of $2.5 million to Grove Scholars.

“This is important work being done in the state where I grew up and owe a lot to,” said Pittman of the Grove Scholars and Ole Miss Opportunity. “These students are so bright and happy to be here, and they are working hard in really challenging disciplines. The hope is this encouragement allows them to have meaningful careers and that will have a good effect on their families.”

Other alumni and friends are encouraged to invest in this premier program. Since 2016, 77% of all Grove Scholars have either completed their degrees or are still actively pursuing them. Of the graduates, 65% have completed or pursued a specialty program in a STEM or health-related field.

“We really want to make sure that students in the Grove Scholars program aren’t just getting a great degree but they’re having a transformative educational experience that sets them on a trajectory as lifelong learners and as individuals with marketable skills who can contribute to Mississippi’s economy and beyond,” said Gray Flora IV, the program’s director.

Renvy Pittman, center, has added a $2.5 million planned gift to her support of the Grove Scholars program. In her recent visit to campus, she attended a meeting with students who are participants in the program. Kirsten Dellinger, College of Liberal Arts’ associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and professor of sociology, is pictured on the right.

Formerly under the umbrella of the FASTrack student success program, Grove Scholars is in its second year as a stand-alone, reporting directly to the College of Liberal Arts. There are 62 Grove Scholars in the program, with leadership hoping to increase that number to 100 by 2025, and this year’s freshman cohort is the largest in history at 26.

“As we grow, we will need more resources to cover those fees, extracurricular activities and experiential learning opportunities that are part of a college student’s three-dimensional experience. We need more people to invest in this work,” Flora said.

“We want our students to be prepared for and then focus on their studies, concentrating on mastering challenging curriculum without the distraction of financial pressures.”

All of Grove Scholars’ expenses, such as tuition, room and food are covered by the program for a summer session prior to their freshman year, a bridge experience that orients them to the university and college-level work. The Ole Miss Opportunity scholarship covers most expenses during the fall and spring semesters; Grove Scholars then pays for one class every summer of participants’ undergraduate years as part of its year-round approach to student development.

“Students start on campus while it’s a little quieter and learn where everything is. That first week of classes can be very overwhelming to a first-generation student,” said Yasmin McLaurin, the program manager.

Grove Scholars offers such services as increased tutoring, help finding jobs, identification of internship and shadowing experiences, stipends for unpaid or lightly paid internships, study abroad, financial assistance with fees related to graduate school and entrance exams, guidance on changing their majors and improved programmatic activities. The program hosts gatherings and dinners throughout the year.

Ansu Edwards of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a 2021 chemistry graduate who is now a medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, called his experience as a Grove Scholar “nothing short of amazing.” The program helped him succeed in college and in interviews for medical school.

“The program is a beacon of encouragement for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds like me and my other friends in Grove Scholars,” he said.

“It advocates for diversity and equity, ensuring everyone can pursue their dreams and gain the support they need. Additionally, this program provides students with a foundation of essential college and life skills that are indispensable for personal growth and success both during and after college.”

Another Grove Scholar alumnus, Jontae Warren of Booneville, Mississippi, who earned a degree in pharmaceutical sciences in 2018 and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree in 2021, also spoke of his positive experience. He is now a clinical pharmacist in Ochsner Baptist Hospital’s Level IV Neonatal ICU in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“This program is important for students because it can be scary starting college as a first-generation student. Grove Scholars allows you to quickly make friends who have similar and different interests and gets you started on the right trajectory toward graduation and your career,” he said.

Grove Scholars know Flora and McLaurin have built a support system with a family-type atmosphere.

“I think knowing that is probably the most important part. They don’t have to make mistakes alone. We say, ‘Any question, big or small, come to us. We will figure it out together. There’s nothing here that you have to navigate alone,’” McLaurin said.

When asked why donors should invest in the program, McLaurin said, “We have kids who come from very low-income high schools, very impoverished backgrounds, but they come here with our support and excel. You would never guess that they were in an at-risk population — they are phenomenal students who put in the work and the time. We encourage them to think with the end goal in mind.”

Ximena Hernandez, a freshman from Vancleave, Mississippi, who is pursuing a degree in allied health with plans to become a nurse, said the support of her fellow Grove Scholars is invaluable.

“We are able to get together and do our homework. We want to go into the medical field, and we all know it’s going to take work and dedication. We know we’ve got to get it done; we can’t procrastinate. It’s really helpful to have friends like that,” she said.

To make a gift to the Grove Scholars program, visit, or for more information, visit the Grove Scholars website or contact Nikki Neely Davis, assistant vice chancellor for development, at or 662-915-6678.

By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development


Online gifts for the 2024 calendar year should be made no later than noon on December 31, 2024.  Checks by mail will need to be postmarked by December 31 to be counted in the 2024 calendar year.