Matthew Small and Ashley Hodges aren’t typical Germanna Community College graduates.

They haven’t even finished their senior year at James Monroe High School yet. But they are among 21 high school seniors receiving associate degrees at the college’s spring commencement ceremonies Friday in the first class of the Gladys P. Todd Academy.

The academy was started two years ago to help underserved students in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County attend four-year universities by giving them the opportunity to earn their associate’s degree for free by the time they finish high school.

Academy students spent part of their school day at Germanna’s Fredericksburg area campus, taking a full-time course load of up to 17 credits per semester. They also received mentoring from community members and participated in cultural enrichment activities.

The first cohort included 14 students from James Monroe High School and seven from Spotsylvania County High School.

“The program is very important because it looks for students whose communities are historically underserved and gives them a chance to do challenging work,” said director Carleen Carey.

Philanthropist Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation contributed $2 million to the program, which launched in the fall of 2015 with 22 students.

“As the grown-ups, we have responsibility to our children and our grandchildren,” Buffett said when she announced the academy. “With this program, we have a chance to do something to revolutionize the way higher education engages young people. I consider supporting Germanna in this effort to be the most important thing I’m doing in the [Fredericksburg] area.”

The Academy’s website defines “underserved” students populations as those who are the first generation in their families to attend college (although that was not the case with some in the first group) and are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

“I like the idea of looking for people the system has underserved and giving them an opportunity to excel. That’s fundamentally American,” Carey said.

The Academy was named for Gladys P. Todd, a longtime Fredericksburg teacher and civil rights activist who died in 2015 at the age of 101. Todd’s daughter, blues musician Gaye Todd Adegbalola, is on the academy board.

“My mom is truly smiling down for the program to carry her name,” Adegbalola said. “She worked all her life for young people, particularly young black people.”

Adegbalola said she is “thrilled” that all the members of the original cohort but one will complete the program this year, but her heart goes out to the one who did not.

“What I want to do now is wrap my arms around number 22,” she said. “That’s what my mom would do.”

Small and Hodges are examples of the academy’s success. He will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and Hodges is bound for Princeton University.

Small said he is grateful to the Gladys Todd Academy for giving him experiences he wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as taking yoga and visiting the General Assembly in Richmond.

He said the most important thing he learned was time management, because he had to balance his high school classes with his Germanna classes, track and field meets and other after-school activities.

He offered advice to future Gladys Todd students.

“Make sure that you are the one who wants to do the program, not just your parents, because you’ll resent them,” he said.

He reports to West Point for initial training July 17 and hopes to eventually become an Army pilot.

Hodges said she was at first hesitant to apply to to the Todd Academy after her guidance counselor recommended her for it because she is not a first generation student.

“I didn’t want to take the place of someone more deserving,” she said.

But she’s wanted to attend a top university ever since she was a little girl, so she decided to apply, hoping the program would help her achieve her goal.

She said one of her favorite academy classes was sociology.

“It gave me a different outlook on the way the world interacts and what makes us humans,” she said.

She said she ended up liking the amount of work required by the academy because it showed her what she is capable of.

“It’s not until you push yourself to your limits that you see what you can achieve,” she said.

Her advice to future Gladys Todd students is “try not to do the bare minimum.”

“You won’t bring out the inner light you have inside you,” she said.

At Princeton, Hodges plans to major in political science with a concentration in African–American studies. She wants to do something in the fields of international public health or education, particularly supporting women and children.

The other institutions Gladys Todd graduates will attend in the fall include Marymount University in Arlington, Bridgewater College in Rockingham County and Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university.

Carey, who took over as director of the Gladys Todd Academy this spring, was herself a first-generation college student from King George County.

“It’s hard to see yourself in the role of a successful college student,” she said of her experience.

She received a Ph.D. in teacher education from Michigan State University in 2014 and is looking forward to showing future academy students “what it looks like to have the title ‘Doctor’ attached to someone like [them].”

She said that the academy’s liberal arts focus teaches low-income students a form of self-expression.

“It’s teaching them to be creative and to write their version of themselves,” she said. “It’s helping them see themselves as the authors of their lives.”

Carey said that both Gladys Todd and Doris Buffett were women and, as such, were not expected to succeed.

“[This program asks students], ‘What will you achieve with the resources you were given?” she said.

Jeanne Wesley, Germanna’s interim vice president for academic affairs and vice president for workforce, said the program, with its emphasis on first-generation college students and its mentoring component, is ground-breaking.

“We’re proud of all the academy students for the great work they’ve done,” Wesley said. “There have been many challenges in creating this unique and complex program. We thank our advisory board and James Monroe and Spotsylvania high schools for their partnership and commitment to the success of a program that can truly alter the course of lives. We are grateful to Ms. Buffett for the opportunity.”

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 @flsadele