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Presbyterian College president surprises high school senior with a full-tuition scholarship

President vandenBerg and Sarah Grace Stanley. (Photo provided by Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church.)

Sarah Grace Stanley didn’t know why Matt vandenBerg, president of Presbyterian College (PC) in Clinton, South Carolina, was joining worship at her church last Sunday. She’d just interviewed for Presbyterian College’s prestigious Griffith Scholarship that would cover her full cost of tuition, fees, room and board. But “I was trying to not think automatically that his visit had to do with me,” Stanley said. “I was trying to keep my hopes low.”

Presbyterian College was the only private college Stanley considered. She preferred it over the public universities she explored because of its small class size, one on one connections with faculty and the emphasis on service in the community. But, as she said, the cost of tuition was “prohibitive” for her and her family.

VandenBerg’s visit to Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, was a surprise orchestrated by Stanley’s pastor, Andrew Whaley, and her family. They knew something that Sarah didn’t: she had been awarded the Griffith Scholarship and vandenBerg made the trip to share this news with her in person.

Two high school seniors are selected by Presbyterian College each year as Griffith Scholars. As vandenBerg described in his announcement, “we really put them through the wringer.” Stanley had to successfully navigate multiple rounds of campus interviews with a thousand other students. Griffith Scholars are to exhibit exceptional academic achievement alongside a “demonstrated leadership ability and potential as well as outstanding personal character.”

Stanley’s church family erupted in raucous applause upon vandenBerg’s announcement — the choir standing to applaud and peer around the organ as Stanley, shocked, walked to the chancel to shake vandenBerg’s hand.

Sarah receives the Griffith Scholarship. (Photo provided by Aleasha Stanley, Sarah’s mom.)

“It was a blur” Stanley shared. “Is this real?” she wondered. She also described receiving the award as “a massive weight lifted off my shoulders” — she no longer had to worry about how she was going to pay for college.

Stanley, who hopes to study religion and history, was encouraged to consider Presbyterian College by her pastor. “Andrew put Presbyterian College on my radar because he knew a number of pastors who had gone there,” she remembered.

During his announcement of Stanley’s scholarship, vandenBerg (who was inaugurated as Presbyterian College’s 19th President on October 22, 2021) said that the college, for generations, has specialized in “helping students out punch their weight class, helping students discover potential they never knew they even had.” vandenBerg recalled the Presbyterian belief that the word “vocation” isn’t just a term that applies to clergy but to the work of all people — God calls each of us. “At PC we believe it’s our institution’s vocation to help our students discover and vigorously pursue their vocation, their calling.”

VandenBerg also described Presbyterian College’s desire to strengthen its affiliation with the Presbyterian church, especially, he said, “in terms of our relationships and our common values, values that the Presbyterian Church has held dear for a long time — pluralism, hospitality, service, justice, and grace.”

Toward that end, Presbyterian College has launched a nation-wide search for a chaplain and dean of spiritual life, who will supply preach and develop relationships and partnerships with churches. They’re reinstating the traveling choir and developed scholarship programs and incentives for Presbyterian students to attend the college. “Since July alone,” vandenBerg said, “we’ve invested $10 million towards this ambition.”

Presbyterian College. (Photo from PC website.)

VandenBerg is also on a mission to address the misconception that a private, Presbyterian liberal arts education isn’t financially accessible. He isn’t alone in this mission.

In an article for the Outlook, Jeff Arnold, executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities (APCU), wrote, “All of our schools are bound by a shared commitment to access, equity and affordability that enables students from all backgrounds to be well-served. This is important when you consider that nearly 60% of those we enroll are the first in their families to attend college and almost half of them are from families with challenging socio-economic circumstances.” Arnold is also raising funds for an endowment that will enable any college-bound Presbyterian student to attend an APCU member school without creating a financial burden for the student’s family.

Stanley admitted that “the sermon was a little hard to pay attention to” after vandenBerg’s announcement. But it’s been a “wild, emotional, roller coaster,” she said. This summer, Stanley, who has felt a call to go into the ministry since eighth grade, has been elected to attend General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate before she begins college as one of Presbyterian College’s Blue Hose.