Vara Allen-Jones Scholarship for Academic Excellence boosts support for first-generation students

by Eric Olson  |   

Vara Allan Jones
Vara Allen-Jones on the UAA campus. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In 2012, Vara Allen-Jones’ colleagues surprised her by naming a scholarship after her. A retired UAA faculty member and administrator, Vara remembers the scholarship — the Vara Allen-Jones Scholarship for Academic Excellence — was created to honor her service to the Anchorage community.

“I'm a first-generation college student,” said Vara. “Everyone that really knows me knows how passionate I am about providing opportunities for that particular cohort of students to have financial, academic and social support — to be successful in an environment they may know nothing about.”

Today, Vara is striving to make the scholarship a permanently endowed fund. She’s enlisted the help of friends and colleagues she met in her 28 years at UAA, and a nationwide network. Her goal is to raise $28,000 by this summer to enable the fund to provide at least $1,000 in scholarship support annually to students.

Vara’s amazing story started when she was a first-year student at Savannah State College, now University, Georgia’s oldest historically Black public university. She worried that she was not prepared for the journey. She was the first in her family to go to college.

“I know what it’s like to walk on a college campus and have no idea what’s expected of you,” Vara said. “You don’t know what you don’t know. My exposure to academic advising, intentional mentoring and a clear expectation of excellence undergirded by support solidified my awareness of the impact these areas could have on student success. That awareness and passion began at Savannah State and continued throughout my career.“

Vara, who retired in 2019 as a faculty member and immediate past associate vice chancellor for the Academic and Multicultural Student Services, built a career around increasing students’ connections and inclusivity, delivering mentoring and advising and championing community engagement to yield academic success.

Upon earning her master's degree in counseling with an emphasis in higher education counseling from Georgia Southern University, she accepted a job at her alma mater Savannah State. She honed her counseling and leadership skills and successfully developed several high-impact student success programs. Vara’s career plan led her to UAA, and she moved to Alaska as a tenure track counseling faculty member at the age of 29.

“I wanted to do something different,” said Vara. She credits the generations of tenacious women who came before as the impetus to move to Alaska. Her mother moved from the South to New York in the 1950s with the determination of creating a better life. She built a career, became a business owner and met and married Vara’s father, a concrete mason.

Moving to Alaska was so unheard of, when Vara announced she was making the trek North to the 49th state, her friends often asked, “Oh, what part of Atlanta will you be in?”

After joining UAA as a counseling faculty member in the Advising and Counseling Center in 1991, she collaborated with colleagues and revamped the Career Services Center. She then served as its director. In 1994, she went on to become the director of Minority Student Services. Vara advocated changing the name of the program to better identify its purpose and to positively reflect students’ identities. She founded AHAINA Student Programs (African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, International and Native American) and the UAA Multicultural Center. She was also awarded tenure as an assistant professor of counseling in 1994.

Vara’s contributions to the university include successfully authoring multimillion-dollar grants to grow academic success programs like Academic Advising Coordinators, TRiO programs, Educational Opportunity Centers, Educational Talent Search, Upward Bound and Student Support Services. Additionally, she expanded New Student Orientation, broadened the focus of AHAINA and the Multicultural Center, developed the UA Scholars and the UAA retention program, as well as advocating for improved learning environments and conditions for students with disabilities.

A perennial nominee by students as a top faculty member, while at UAA she received a Noel-Levitz National Award for Student Retention and the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in recognition of her outstanding contributions to students. Vara’s commitment to student success extended to the Anchorage School District, where her leadership led to TRiO services being available in targeted middle schools and high schools.

“From her earliest years at UAA, I admired how Vara brought diverse perspectives together and created a shared vision for supporting students to achieve personal and academic success," said UAA Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Bruce Schultz. "As she drew from her past personal and professional experiences in the South, Vara showed us how to serve students with grace and a never-wavering commitment to excellence."

Interested in supporting Vara’s vision? Make a gift to the Vara Allen-Jones Scholarship for Academic Excellence.

Note: This scholarship is not yet open for student applicants.
Students may apply for a number of similar scholarships beginning Oct. 1, 2022.
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