Madison Pays it Forward

brad barnett office of financial aid madison forever scholarship

Scholarship allows students to stay in school when times are tough


A parent loses a job. A medical emergency occurs, leaving a family in a difficult financial position. Extreme weather strikes, destroying belongings and financial stability. These tragedies are just some of those faced by hundreds of JMU students every year. And among the hardships for these students and their families, the question arises: how will continuing attendance at JMU be affordable?

Shortly after Autumn Dougherty had gotten accepted into the School of Arts and declared a major in Industrial Design, her family began facing financial troubles due to the economic recession in 2009. “My dad was a mortgage broker, so it directly affected us…I mean, we were one of those families that pretty much lost everything when it went bad,” Dougherty said.

Eventually, Dougherty’s parents had to file for bankruptcy, which caused them to no longer qualify for financial aid, nor were they able to co sign on loans. “It got to the point where I wasn’t going to have any money to pay for school. None from anywhere. I was applying for scholarships but wasn’t getting any feedback or any responses,” Dougherty explained. Unsure of what else to do, she contacted the Office of Financial Aid.

autumn dougherty madison forever scholarship recipient

That was when she found out about the Madison Forever Scholarship Fund. Brad Barnett – the Senior Associate Director at the Office of Financial Aid – helped with its formation in 2009. ”We realized that there were lots of students whose families were financially impacted with lots of job losses, lots of bankruptcies, lots of lost homes…things were just really kind of falling apart for people,” Barnett said.

Originally, it was called Madison For Keeps. It was designed to last for one year to help students like Dougherty, who were facing sudden financial instability due to the economic recession and needed temporary help until their families regained financial security. Students who had exhausted all loan opportunities and were still struggling to garner enough money to pay for tuition could write a letter to the Office of Financial Aid explaining their situations.

Even though hundreds of letters had been received by the Office of Financial Aid for years before, in 2009, a much greater portion of the student body was enduring similar situations to Dougherty’s. “When things went kind of south, and we hit that great recession in the 2009 year… the letters increased and the reasons were all the same. I mean our letters are very based on why people feel they want or need money to go to school but in this particular situation, they were all the same. It was just kind of an economy recession area, so it worked really well,” Barnett recalled.

With the help of the scholarship fund in 2009, 107 students were able to continue attending JMU who otherwise would have had to go home. However, the letters kept coming.

“The following school year, 2010 to 2011, we realized there’s still some fallout from this and there are still people who need assistance, so what can we do on a more permanent basis? So we got some of the same players around the table and we said, ‘Well let’s take Madison For Keeps to the next level,” Barnett said. The program was then named Madison Forever and is now done every year.

“It’s an annual fundraising campaign, so we only have money to give away based on what we raise. It’s not from endowments, it’s just every year people giving money then we’re turning around and finding people with need and helping them stay here,” Barnett said. In order for a student to qualify for a scholarship, he or she has to maintain at least a 2.25 GPA and, as Barnett described, be in a situation that “in its nature, is designed to be a short-term and duration problem that once they get it resolved, should allow them to stay back on their feet.”

Deciding who to give scholarships to is a difficult process because “every one of them in their own unique way really just kind of hits a heart string that you wish you could open the checkbook up and just write one for all of them,” Barnett said.

Kevin Hickman, a junior studying Public Relations, had already been going to JMU for a year before experiencing a financial predicament two years ago. “My father had lost his job… It took a toll on us financially, emotionally, and on top of it, he was also diagnosed with clinical depression, so there was that as well.” He found out about the scholarship fund and wrote a letter to apply. “I had to do something because otherwise, there was no way I was going to continue to be able to attend JMU.”

Hickman ended up receiving a scholarship, allowing him to continue earning his degree. He wishes to pursue a career in the music industry upon graduation. The money received is not a loan but simply a donation, so it does not have to be paid back. “Essentially, the Madison Forever Scholarship just took a huge weight off of our backs,” he said.

kevin hickman madison forever scholarship recipient

Both Hickman and Dougherty now work at the Office of Annual Giving as callers. They call potential donors, such as JMU alumni, faculty and staff to request donations. Since the Fund began, over 300 students have been able to receive scholarships. The average amount received by each scholarship recipient is $6,526.00.

“I was very grateful…I am more than willing to spread the word about this scholarship fund and to try to help the University, especially other students who might have been in the same position,” Hickman said. The average donation given is about $90. Tiffany Shene, the Senior Student Manager at the Office of Annual Giving, said that even current students donate. “[This fund] is the biggest most relatable fund that we have other than giving to your major. People think, you know, ‘That could be me.’ Like, ‘What if, suddenly, one of my parents died or somebody loses their job, that could be me and I could be needing this, so why not even give five dollars to something like this?’”