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Scholarship provides pipeline from Colorado to Princeton

May 17, 2019

DENVER (AP) — In the spring of 1990, when Amy Newnam learned she’d been accepted to Princeton University, she felt a quiver of excitement at attaining the goal she’d set in seventh grade and worked hard at Trinidad High School to bring to fruition.

Then came fear. Doubt crept in where confidence once lived, and suddenly New Jersey seemed awfully far from home.

What were the chances that a kid from a sparsely populated, economically depressed place like southern Colorado’s Las Animas County could find success among the moneyed legacies and products of elite eastern prep schools within the Ivy League halls that produced American presidents, captains of industry and literary giants?

As it turns out, they were excellent.

Newnam became the 13th student from Las Animas County since the 1960s to head to Princeton to pursue a degree. There have been 17 more since then. None have transferred or dropped out. All have achieved at least a bachelor’s degree except one — the 20-year-old sophomore who currently carries the region’s banner.

They all survived the culture shock, the demanding academics, the social orientation that sometimes seemed like an unbreakable code — even the physical landscape of the campus, whose imposing architecture reinforced the notion that they’d entered a radically different world.

“It really is kind of overwhelming,” recalls Newnam, who left Princeton with an English degree, went on to law school and now does foundation work at a Philadelphia law firm. “It’s exactly what you’d think of as an Ivy League institution — big, powerful, so beyond what I was expecting. It was scary.”

Yet the students overcame all of that to graduate with degrees in everything from physics to international affairs and create what would seem an improbable pipeline from a historic western ranching and mining region to one of the most celebrated universities in the country.

Consider the demographics: The 4,700-square-mile, wide open range of Las Animas County is home to about 14,500 people — just three per square mile. Its median household income of about $40,000 is one-third less than Denver’s, and its poverty rate twice as high.

While it produces high school graduates at roughly the same pace as the city, only about one in five adults age 25 and over holds a bachelor’s degree, less than half the rate in Denver. So what would account for so many students, relatively speaking, busting out and going all Ivy League?

The answer is rooted in the story of a 19th-century, West Virginia-born lawyer. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, he headed west in search of a restorative climate and his fortune. He found both.

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Doctors gave James Madison John a year to live.

He only recently had finished law school in Chicago and was ready to begin his practice when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In the 1870s, doctors often prescribed a warm, arid locale to deal with the disease — the sanatorium industry boomed in southern Colorado — and John boarded a stage coach that eventually deposited him in Trinidad.

His health rebounded, and he launched not only a successful law practice but a career that encompassed cattle ranching, investment in irrigation projects and a political run that included a term in the Colorado Senate and two terms as mayor of Trinidad.

Freed from the tuberculosis death sentence, he strung together four productive decades making a lasting mark on Las Animas County while amassing a family fortune before his death in 1914. His son, William John, graduated from Trinidad High School, attended Princeton — class of 1910 — and pursued a career as an author of novels and short stories, including one that won an O. Henry Award for best American short story of 1930 that put him in the company of such literary icons as Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner.

Later in his life, William John sought a way to memorialize his sister, Mary John Goree, who died in 1944. He settled on an endowment to his alma mater that, upon his death, would fund scholarships for students from Las Animas County. It’s now one of hundreds of endowed scholarships at Princeton — but one of the few tied to a specific location.

“I think within my family, there has always been this profound sense of gratitude for what the area meant to our family in terms of my great-grandfather being able to live nearly 40 years after having a dread disease and doing very well financially,” says David Vandermeulen, the great-grandson of James and grandson of William John. “My grandfather felt it important that money go back into that area for the benefit of young people in that community.”

Vandermeulen, also a Princeton grad who lives in Ohio and serves on the advisory board for the Princeton scholarship, notes that while the university initially wanted the scholarship to encompass a larger geographical region, his grandfather insisted that it be restricted to Las Animas County — otherwise, Princeton would have no incentive to recruit from what many locals consider an overlooked part of the state. The university relented.

William John seeded the endowment with $100,000 in 1947 — an amount equal to about $1.1 million in today’s dollars. The money went into a charitable remainder trust, which allowed John to claim a tax deduction up front and retain the income generated by his donation during retirement. The scholarship went into effect upon his death in 1962.

The Mary John Goree Scholarship at Princeton University subsidized its first student in the early 1960s. Maurice East, a Trinidad High graduate, also became the only student so far to use the scholarship to earn post-graduate degrees. After earning his undergraduate degree from Colgate University, he obtained a masters and a doctorate in politics at Princeton and eventually served as dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

But after the first two recipients, only one more took advantage of it over a 14-year period. Meanwhile, the endowment expanded with unspent investment income. William John’s daughter, Alice John Vandermeulen, urged Princeton to promote the scholarship more actively, but the university again sought to open it up to students across Colorado, which she opposed.

Eventually, the Colorado attorney general and two students filed suit in 1977 over the university offering less than full tuition as specified in the Princeton Goree scholarship. A 1979 settlement, says David Vandermeulen, Alice’s son, kept the Princeton Goree limited to Las Animas County students. It also created an advisory committee for administration of the scholarship and made clear that the guaranteed minimum award would cover full tuition as originally intended.

This school year’s cost for tuition, room and board is $65,810. The Princeton Goree covers full tuition, with room and board and funding for other expenses according to the university’s policies and practices, which can include financial need.

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It’s nearly 1,800 miles from Trinidad to the campus of Princeton University. In some ways, it’s light years to another universe.

In 1964, Bill Risley became the second student to take advantage of the Princeton Goree. He noticed right away that he was a little different.

“What you find when you go from a little town in Colorado to Princeton is that you meet an overwhelming number of people who’ve been preparing to go there their entire life,” he says. “Parents have been watching every move to help them get ahead to go to a school like that.”

The academic atmosphere was intense, and Risley felt he wasn’t nearly as well-prepared as most of his classmates — an observation many students would echo over the years. And he didn’t find a lot of sympathy back in the late 1960s. Through a rough first semester, he’d consult regularly with his academic counselor.

“And he’d say, ‘Well, it’s your problem,’ in so many words,” Risley recalls. ”‘This is what you gotta do.’ So I did.”

Sally Jane Ruybalid is the most recent student to benefit from the scholarship. The sophomore architecture major followed the footsteps of her older brother, Nick, who graduated last year with an English degree. Even with a sibling to help ease the transition, she still felt a bit intimidated upon arrival in New Jersey.

And the shortcomings of her hometown’s underfunded schools quickly revealed themselves.

“I’m very grateful to Trinidad High School, it taught me things inside and outside the classroom that make me feel like a better person,” Ruybalid, 20, says. “But I was very aware that, sure, there are other people like me at Princeton, but they’re very rare. My friends there had access to ACT prep courses, five different language courses, more diverse sports — tennis, swimming, rowing, racquetball. I’m on the end of that spectrum where you just work with what you have.”

Hilary Billings Albert was one of four kids from tiny Hoehne (HO-nee) High School, just outside Trinidad, who landed the scholarship in a six-year span starting in the late ’90s, a golden academic age for the school that “created a culture where it was a good thing to be smart.” She and her high school classmates dominated speech and debate and turned in championship performances in the annual Knowledge Bowl.

It wasn’t until her junior year at Princeton, when she gained entry to the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, that she felt like she was operating on a level playing field with her classmates.

Despite that, she still felt that the most difficult challenge for a kid from Las Animas County took place in the social sphere. In a freshman writing seminar, she learned about social codes and how recognizing them determines social class.

“I remember reading this and thinking I didn’t have most of the codes my classmates had,” Albert says. “It was challenging to learn on the go, all these different social cues, different parts of culture that were different from where I was from.”

But navigating the school’s upper-crust social circles prepared her to operate in any environment as she rose to become a product manager at Microsoft in the Seattle area.

“I learned all these academics, and gained confidence because now I could understand higher level statistics or economics,” she says. “But I also learned about social underpinnings. Princeton lends an air of legitimacy where people might question your intelligence or whether you should have a seat at the table.”

And yet, she never lost sight of her down-to-earth Colorado roots. Eventually, she married a Princeton classmate whose background was similar to hers — a guy from the Canadian town of Blind River, Ontario — a hamlet smaller than Trinidad.

In a similar way, Newnam, the Philadelphia lawyer, gravitated to classmates with whom she seemed to have more in common. She held a work-study job in the Princeton dining hall to make extra money, and that experience provided her a social comfort zone

“I almost felt culturally closer to the folks I was working with in the dining hall,” she says. “I can hold my own intellectually and academically, but I bonded more with other students who were having to work, and some of the staff.”

Years later, she married one of the non-student staff — the son of the dining hall chef.

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For the Princeton Goree, students must be accepted through the university’s normal admissions process — no policy provides for preferential treatment. Once accepted, a student receives the scholarship automatically.

But that’s just the most obvious difference it makes. Once the scholarship started sending the first few locals to the Ivy League, it changed the way other Las Animas County students thought about their future.

Albert remembers reading in the local paper about Bernie Trujillo, the Trinidad boy who went to Princeton on a Goree scholarship, when she was in the sixth grade. That changed the course of her academic aspirations.

“I remember wanting to be just like him,” says Albert, 33. “There’s something unique and special about growing up in a place that small and isolated, and realizing there’s a pipeline to Princeton. It’s a pretty wild thing. You grow up with it, like it’s normal. As you get older, you realize that’s not normal at all, and we were unbelievably unlucky. There’s something different when you know there’s a scholarship out there to make good on.”

Albert made good and graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2008.

Eric Hagen, Trinidad High class of 1988, had thought seriously about applying to one of the military academies before he became aware of the Princeton opportunity. The son of an optometrist, he began college thinking of a medical career, but eventually changed majors and pursued his interest in history and literature, which led him to a degree in English.

Around his junior year, he also came to another realization — he still harbored a desire for military life. So he enlisted in the Marines and served a six-year hitch before returning to Colorado to get his MBA and eventually landing a job in investor relations for an energy company.

“Princeton also made me think about what’s a good life, and how do you live a life artfully and not just practically,” says Hagen, 49. “There was more a sense of philosophy, the meaning of things. I can recall the first class I had, Modern Existential Literature, I was learning different ways to think about things. That led me down an unconventional path.”

Just as the Princeton Goree began to regain its momentum in the late ’70s, Blaine Newby and his family moved to the Trinidad area from Denver so his father could start a business. But when that failed, and paying for college looked like it would be a heavy lift for the family, he learned about the scholarship and channeled his efforts toward earning acceptance.

He graduated with a degree in politics, since the university had no undergraduate business degree, and when he returned to Colorado that distinction opened doors. Eventually, he entered the corporate world and spent several years working for Janus Capital and then nearly a decade at Western Union.

Five years ago, he resigned to work for the nonprofit St. Francis Center in downtown Denver, where he’s a case manager working with former felons and the homeless. He’d volunteered there for years, and eventually that experience morphed into a full-time job.

“I have no experience whatsoever from an academic background,” Newby says. “But once I left the corporate world, I thought it would be a good place to give back.”

Those who benefited from the Princeton Goree scholarship are unanimous in their recognition of how fortunate they’ve been — and in their gratitude. And while few have returned to the region that made their education possible, there remains an appreciation for the area that shaped them.

Ruybalid ponders her place as the 30th Las Animas County student to attend Princeton since the scholarship was instituted. On the one hand she wishes there were more, and thinks that often students are frightened by the prospect of going far from home or doubt their academic potential in such a demanding school — a fear she says is unfounded.

“I also think that number is, at the same time, impressive,” she says. “Really, we do not have what a lot of other people have in order to prepare for an Ivy League education. But we really have heart, and a work ethic. I think people from Trinidad, more than anywhere else, have this attitude that if you work hard and take care of one another, you can do whatever you want.”