Since 1983, the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program (GSP) has empowered and uplifted thousands of rising high school seniors to prepare them to become leaders in their communities. The program gives students opportunities for personal growth and development, with each scholar’s experience is cultivated by their interests.
During GSP, scholars learn about topics of their choice – including creative writing, forensics, historical analysis, journalism, music and theater – by engaging in discussion and participating in activities.
“We’re all here, we have the same amount of time, learn basically the same things, but our different perspectives and different backgrounds allow us to interact differently,” said Brad Mahung, a student at Glasgow High School (Barren County) who was participating in Governor’s Scholars at Centre College.
Mahung said he applied to attend the program to learn more about himself and others.
“High school taught us, ‘Oh, you have to take these classes, get these grades and then go to school.’ That’s it. But then I saw GSP and [thought], ‘This could be a really good opportunity for me to see what else is out there,'” he said.
Governor’s scholars come from across Kentucky. They are chosen by a diverse committee of education professionals from across the state. Selection is based on students’ academic achievement, awards, extracurricular activities, public service, a 500-word essay and recommendations from teachers and community members.
In its first year, the program brought 230 students from across the Commonwealth to one college campus. In the years since, the program has grown to welcome more than 1,000 students to three college campuses every year.
The five-week, residential summer program is currently held on the campuses of Bellarmine University, Centre College and Morehead State University. It costs about $2,500 per scholar per year, but participants pay none of this cost.
In April 2021, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) announced its plans to direct $75,000 per year in 2021, 2022 and 2023 toward expanding GSP with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The additional funding provided by KDE allowed GSP to focus on equity in its most recent expansion by opening spots for 30 more students and providing opportunities for students from historically underserved areas and backgrounds.
KDE staff – including Commissioner of Education and Chief Learner Jason E. Glass and Deputy Commissioner and KDE’s Chief Equity Officer Thomas Woods-Tucker – worked with staff from GSP and the Kentucky Center for Statistics to identify high-poverty areas in Kentucky and elevate applications from those areas.
“GSP’s expansion across its three campuses is a dream come true for me. I recognize GSP as a catalyst for civic and economic engagement among young leaders,” said Woods-Tucker.
“We have the biggest program of this kind in the nation,” said Bryan Rich, campus director at Centre College’s GSP.
Rich said students learn in an environment with minimal pressure, which dates to before his time as a scholar in 1996.
“We just learned because we wanted to,” Rich said. “We’re doing it not because of any sort of accomplishment other than the act itself. And how many times in life do we do that?”
Many scholars said the empowerment they experience at GSP has a lasting effect. They said they could see how the lessons they learned would affect their life plans and how the opportunities presented would strengthen their interests and passions.
“We are trying to give [scholars] a different experience than what they’re already familiar with,” Rich said.
Madison Marsillett, a George Rogers Clark High School (Clark County) student at Centre, said her experience at GSP had given her newly formed connections, friendships and opportunities to grow as an individual.
“You start to find your people, you make these relationships. You’re all in the same position,” Marsillett said. “I was really looking for an experience that was not just at home,” she said, “I wanted to get the college experience before actually going to college.”
The leadership and learning opportunities provided by GSP are central elements of United We Learn, KDE’s vision for the future of education in the Commonwealth.
“Our collaboration with GSP is an embodiment of our mission: providing leadership and support to ensure success for each and every student,” Glass said. “KDE is proud to partner with GSP to give more of the state’s young adults the opportunity to break out of their usual routine, find new friendships and discover the passions that will lead them forward throughout their lives.”
Damien Sweeney, director of the Office of Teaching and Learning’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging team, said that access, opportunity and representation are all at the core of GSP’s expansion.
“The ultimate goal of this partnership is being able to remove barriers and provide an equity lens for GSP and programs similar to it,” Sweeney said.
Rich encouraged GSP’s supporters to advocate for the program in their communities. He said GSP has garnered support from bipartisan and nonpartisan groups over the years and that two of Kentucky’s current highest constitutional officers from different political parties participated in the program as teenagers.
He also said next year’s scholars would benefit from encouragement and support throughout the recruitment process.
“We’re not here to shape opinions, we’re here to embolden scholars to be passionate and to be leaders, whatever their beliefs may be,” Rich said.