Roy Vagelos, former Merck CEO, gives $1.75M to bring program to his hometown

Rutgers Future Scholars, a pioneer program that for the last eight years has inspired and prepared students in the university’s host communities to attend college, has been extended to include Rahway.

A $1.75 million gift from benefactor P. Roy and Diana Vagelos will allow 15 Rahway students to participate in the program each year for at least the next six years, according to Courtney McAnuff, vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers.

“This is a life-changing opportunity for students in Rahway,” McAnuff said. The program will begin taking applications this spring for enrollment in the summer. Rutgers will hold a public interest session for Rahway students March 2. 

Roy Vagelos, former Merck CEO, gives $1.75 million to bring Rutgers Future Scholars program to Rahway.

Vagelos, a physician and biochemist who served as the chief executive officer of pharmaceutical giant Merck, has a strong connection to Rahway. He graduated from the Rahway High School in 1947, and about 15 years ago began a scholarship program for Rahway’s graduating students who were accepted into the nation’s top 25 colleges.  

"I had wonderful teachers at Rahway High School who helped me to reach for the top by working harder,” Vagelos said. “I believe this program will similarly challenge RHS students to go for it – entry into a great university. I liked being challenged and they will too."

Since its inception, Rutgers Future Scholars has served 1,600 students in its four host communities – New Brunswick, Newark, Camden and Piscataway. The program is funded primarily through private and corporate contributions.

Beginning in the seventh grade and throughout high school, the students receive mentoring, tutoring and college prep courses, including summer sessions that are a required part of the program. In turn, if the student applies, and is accepted to Rutgers, the university covers the cost of tuition.

Rahway High School Principal John Farinella asked Vagelos to consider funding the Rutgers Future Scholar program for Rahway students. Vagelos then met with the Rutgers team, including McAnuff and program director Aramis Gutierrez, and agreed to make his gift.

“Roy Vagelos is a down-to-earth and thoughtful man,” Farinella said. “He’s a caring person who is giving back and helping people get a start in the world. He has never lost touch with his roots.”

Rutgers students, accepted to the university through the Future Scholars program, chat in between classes.
Photo: Douglas Benedict

For some Rahway students the program will mean the difference between attending college or cutting short their formal education for financial reasons.

“We struggle with one real issue in our district – poverty,” Farinella said. Two-thirds of the 1,100 students at the school receive free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure that the state uses to determine socioeconomic levels across all districts.

That doesn’t mean that the school is lacking in opportunities or success stories. For example, Rahway High School offers 16 advanced placement courses and has been designated as a model school in the arts.

It also boasts some famous alumni, such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1928) and astronomer Carl Sagan (1951).  Shanice Williams – who starred in the recent NBC production The Wiz Live! – graduated from the school in 2014.

The program, Farinella said, will help raise the Rahway school district’s profile. “Bringing Rutgers Future Scholars to Rahway says Rutgers is invested in Rahway High School and there must be value here,” he said. “It’s a statement of who we are to get the endorsement of The State University of New Jersey.”

Rutgers Future Scholars began when officials noticed few students from its host communities were enrolling in Rutgers. The university set out to find promising students and invest in their future.  

At the time, Rutgers Future Scholars was the only program of its kind in the country, McAnuff said. Now, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have launched similar programs.  

The Rutgers program is making an impact: 98 percent of the active scholars graduate from high school and 80 percent of the high school graduates have stayed in college, said RFS program director Gutierrez.

“Most important, the scholars are focused on solving problems facing our communities and world,” Gutierrez added. “They understand, by furthering their education, they will make a difference.  

Future scholars are not required to attend Rutgers, but if they do, they can go tuition-free.

The scholarship lifted a financial burden for Carolina Radecki’s family. Radecki, 18, of Piscataway, is the second of eight children and a member of Rutgers Class of 2019.

 “Without Rutgers Future Scholars, honestly, I think it would have been hard for me to go to college,” said Radecki, whose older brother, Kamil, also attends Rutgers. “I would’ve had to decide between going to college and finding a job.”

Now she’s studying chemical engineering and, inspired by her 3-year-old brother’s allergies, wants to learn about the causes of allergic diseases.

“The program allowed me to do more – and be better,” she said.