Published on 12/14/23

Third cohort of CAES Rural Scholars embraces first semester at UGA

By Maria M. Lameiras
A student walks in front of Conner Hall in autumn sunshine
The third cohort of CAES Rural Scholars includes Jay Lavender of Statham, Georgia; Ashley Rowell of Douglas, Georgia; and Willow Waldrep of Forsyth, Georgia. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

The 2023 cohort of Rural Scholars brings a wide range of interests and ambitions with them as they complete their first semester at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The third round of students recruited through the CAES Rural Scholars Program includes Jay Lavender of Statham, Georgia; Ashley Rowell of Douglas, Georgia; and Willow Waldrep of Forsyth, Georgia. Launched in 2020, the program was the vision of Keith Kelly, a 1980 CAES graduate and founder, president and CEO of Kelly Products; his wife, Pam Kelly; and 1983 CAES alumnus Robert Varnedoe.

Each of this year’s Rural Scholars entered UGA with a full resume of academic and extracurricular accolades.

Jay Lavender

Before enrolling at UGA, Lavender, a hospitality and food industry management major, participated in The Classic Center's Hospitality Careers Academy, a week-long exploratory program for high school students aspiring to pursue careers in the hospitality industry. He was awarded a scholarship from The Classic Center Cultural Foundation for his leadership, teamwork and collegiality among peers during the program.

As a student at Prince Avenue Christian School, Lavender was a member of the school’s academic team, served as captain of the tennis team and was a member of the cross-country team. He was active in the school’s theater program, was junior and senior president of the school chapter for the National Honor Society and was nominated as school representative for the Governor’s Honors Program in social studies.

“Being a Rural Scholar for CAES has shown me why it is so great to be an Ag Dawg. The community, opportunities and stellar education has really helped me find my place in such a huge university,” Lavender said. “The Rural Scholar program has opened my eyes to a world of possibilities here at UGA, such as study abroad, the ambassador program, and many other ways to get connected to others around campus that I did not even know were possible. I even got introduced to my donors so that we could stay in touch while I am in college. As I am reflecting on my first semester at UGA, I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that the Rural Scholars program has presented for me, and I cannot wait for the semesters to come.”

Lavender's scholarship was supported by the generosity of LeAnn and Henry Harp. 

Ashley Rowell

Rowell, an avian biology major, earned multiple academic awards as a student at Citizens Christian Academy in Douglas, Georgia, including a 2022 UGA Certificate of Merit Award, and participated in the 2022 UGA College of Veterinary Medicine Career Aptitude and Mentoring Program and the 2019 Duke TIP Summer Veterinary Medicine Program. She served as president of her high school FFA chapter and was captain of the senior forestry, land judging, veterinary science and wildlife management teams with FFA. Rowell also served as a student council representative and as class president in both her junior and senior years.

2023 CAES Rural Scholars Jay Lavender, Ashley Rowell and Willow Waldrep
2023 CAES Rural Scholars Jay Lavender, Ashley Rowell and Willow Waldrep

A committed athlete, Rowell served as a captain for track and field, a co-captain for basketball and cheerleading, and a member of the cross-country team. In her community, she served on the junior boards for the Coffee County Farm Bureau and the First National Bank of Coffee County.

“I am forever grateful for the Rural Scholars Program that encouraged me to leave my small town and make my mark on UGA,” said Rowell, adding that being selected for the CAES Rural Scholars program provided both confidence and financial support while programs like the Thrive at UGA program have helped ensure her success once on campus. “By allowing me to meet friends and professors in a close-knit environment, Thrive gave me the foundation I needed. I went on to become a freshman representative for the Student Government Association’s Connect Program and the rural students’ RISE organization.”

An avian biology major with dreams of becoming a rural poultry veterinarian, Rowell said she has experienced more than she could have imagined in her first semester at UGA.

“I have loved chanting UGA at the top of my lungs during all home football games. The first day of my poultry lab, I hugged a Polish chicken and since then have cracked open hundreds of eggs to document the embryo development process. I sutured chickens with the Pre-Vet Club, formed lifelong friendships through UGA’s Young Farmers and Ranchers, flipped with the Gymnastics Club, and befriended the cleaning crew at MLC while studying all night for chemistry tests,” Rowell said. “My memorable UGA moments are endless, and it is just the first semester!”

Rowell's scholarship was supported by the Richard B. Russell Foundation. 

Willow Waldrep

Waldrep, an agribusiness major, served as a member of the student council at Mary Persons High School, as a Support Georgia Agriculture Agvocate, as both vice-president and president of the school FFA chapter, as a Georgia FFA Organization delegate to the 2022 National FFA Convention and Expo, and as a member of the Beta Club and Future Business Leaders of America. As an FFA member, she exhibited livestock — lambs, swine and beef cattle — from elementary school through high school. Active in FFA for many years, Waldrep was a member of the forestry, livestock judging, floriculture, and farm and agribusiness management teams and a member of the two-time state champion land evaluation teams. She was an active member and Buddy Pair for the high school Best Buddies chapter. An avid volunteer, Waldrep has participated in numerous service projects through the First Baptist Church of Forsyth, Samaritan’s Purse, Key Club and many others.

“I am so thankful for the way I have been welcomed into the UGA community through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Rural Scholars Program. Not only have I been financially supported in pursuing my education, I have received opportunities to help me grow and succeed in college,” Waldrep said. “The Rural Scholars Program has allowed me to connect with others, benefit from leadership opportunities, and participate in the Thrive at Georgia program. Along with my opportunities from the Rural Scholars Program, I have loved my time getting involved with UGA Young Farmers and Ranchers, Wesley, and Watkinsville First Baptist. I am so grateful for the Rural Scholars Program and its impact on my education and college experience.”

Waldrep's scholarship was supported by a 2023 grant from the UGA Parents Leadership Council. 

Supporting rural students

Designed to recruit and retain outstanding students from underrepresented areas of the state, the Rural Scholars Program was launched in 2020 with two endowed scholarships to provide perpetual funding for students from rural areas, as well as two additional, non-endowed funds to provide immediate support to other rural students.

After the program’s launch, the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees allocated funds to endow a third scholarship to fund an additional scholar each fall. Funds from other donors have supported recruitment, professional development and scholarships, bolstering the program over the past year.

For more information about ways to support the Rural Scholars Program, visit To support the fund directly, visit CAES Rural Scholars Operational fund.

Maria M. Lameiras is a managing editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.