The James Monroe Scholars Program at William & Mary provides students a pathway to mentorship as soon as they arrive on campus. 

Monroe Scholars lean on close connections with their cohort, as well as the valuable assistance of faculty, as they embark on distinctive research and scholarship opportunities as early as their first year at the university.

“It’s given me a lot of confidence,” Sabine Mead Mexia ’26 said of being a Monroe Scholar. “I’m surrounded by people who are asking faculty to be their mentors. I’m surrounded by people who go to office hours. I’m surrounded by people who have ins with their departments and are very invested in what they do.

“The Monroe Scholars program provides you with role models that make you confident enough to go up to a professor and say, ‘Hi, I have this huge idea for a project. Are you willing to undertake it with me?’”

James Monroe Scholars are the most academically distinguished undergraduates at W&M and are selected for the program before they arrive as first-year students based on traits indicated on their application to W&M, such as intellectual depth, curiosity, academic passion and care for the community.

Now, the scholars are getting even more opportunities to connect with their cohort for mentorship, and they’ll have a new home soon to better facilitate connections between students. 

Most years, the cohort lives together as first-year students in Monroe Hall – although this year DuPont Hall was designated for housing while Monroe Hall is being refurbished – to help cultivate relationships between students with similar interests and academic pursuits.

“Knowing a bunch of people makes campus feel a lot more homey,” said Seneca RiceWoolf ’25. “There was something really special about coming home every day to Monroe Hall and having a lot of people interested in the same kind of things and also just really committed to learning.”

Mentorship is key

Undergraduate research is the main pillar of the Monroe Scholars program. Students in the program are able to apply for funding to support research projects that are completed the summer after their first year. Moreover, every scholar is eligible to receive a $3,000 grant to conduct a research project the summer after their sophomore or junior year.

Monroe Scholars are given the freedom to pursue research projects of their own design, conducted with close mentorship from a faculty member.

“Undergraduate research creates a unique avenue for personal and intellectual growth,” said Kate Patterson, undergraduate research program administrator at the Charles Center and director of the Monroe Scholars program. “Students get to hone in on their interests and passions to prepare for post-graduation life, all while learning from outstanding faculty who are supporting and cheering on their efforts.”

The initial selection process isn’t the only way W&M students can become Monroe Scholars. Once on campus, transfer students and first-year students who are planning to complete a summer research project may apply to become a Monroe Scholar as part of the Charles Center Summer Research Grant process.

Navigating undergraduate research can be intimidating at times, RiceWoolf said. Establishing relationships with professors, like RiceWoolf did with a host of faculty members during her first year on campus, helps tremendously.

“It’s great to know you have access to so many extra resources,” RiceWoolf said. “It can be really hard to figure out the research process, so being able to text somebody who will help you and say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ makes such a big difference.”

Being a part of a cohort of students with similar interests and responsibilities helps, as well. In addition to bonds formed within the walls of Monroe Hall, the Monroe Scholars program has a peer-to-peer mentorship component to help first-year students adapt to college life.

Older peer mentors provide their protégés with advice on research opportunities, course registration, housing decisions and the like.

“It was nice to have someone on campus older than me looking out for me,” Mead Mexia said.

Bridge to undergraduate research

The support RiceWoolf has received as a Monroe Scholar has helped her explore her interests more deeply, and it’s why she decided to pursue a self-designed major that combines elements of sociology, economics, public policy, government and psychology.

She ventured outside of the social sciences to participate in a geology project at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science that involved analyzing water samples and processing data, and she now works as an undergraduate researcher there in the Coastal & Estuarine Ecology Lab.

Water and data are two of the pillars of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

“It gave me a lot of lab experience,” said RiceWoolf. “I used data processing tools and lab equipment. I was able to talk about those skills during the interview process to say, ‘I know how a lab works because of my previous research.’”

Although Monroe Scholars often work on independent research projects, faculty mentorship is critical. Mead Mexia said the Monroe Scholars program provided her confidence to approach faculty to help with her projects.

“I definitely was interested in research, but the Monroe Scholars program is almost like a bridge,” Mead Mexia said. “You want to research, and that’s the goal, but it’s really hard to cross it as an undergraduate.”

Monroe Hall learning commons preview
A rendering of the new learning commons in Monroe Hall. The residence hall will re-open in the fall of 2024 with a host of new amenities and refurbished bedrooms and common areas. (submitted image)

Monroe makeover

Many freshman Monroe Scholars have called Monroe Hall home over the years, and it’s a place that has helped cohorts grow stronger.

The residence hall is closed while it receives a makeover for the start of the fall 2024 semester, and when it reopens it will provide Monroe Scholar cohorts with new amenities, as well as the same valuable opportunities to bond while sharing study rooms and common areas.

“I think the greatest thing I took from the Monroe Scholars program was the community, especially living in Monroe Hall with other Monroe Scholars,” Mead Mexia said. “We studied together. We worked together. We helped each other out with research grants. We edited each other’s essays. That was a really big plus for me.”

Monroe Hall is in the midst of a 16-month renovation project to upgrade much of its interior and exterior, which includes the installation of new windows, plumbing pipes and fixtures, fire protection systems and a geothermal HVAC system.

Additional common spaces will be created, and the building will include ADA compliant features for access into and throughout the building, including ramps and an elevator.

Interior renovations will include fully modernized bedrooms, more spacious study rooms and a social lounge, single-use and modernized shared bathrooms, program space for classes and projects, upgraded kitchens, an upgraded attic space with bedrooms and lounge space and sustainability features to decrease building utility use by at least 30%.

“I’m really excited to see the renovations,” RiceWoolf said. “I’m eager to see what the new and improved Monroe Hall looks like.”

, Communications Specialist