Before enrolling in the Upward Bound program at Virginia Tech, Zariyah Keels thought college was perhaps beyond her grasp. She admits she wasn’t a particularly motivated student — at some point during her time at Salem High School, she said, “things just went downhill.”

Today, though, Keels is finishing her first year at Tuskegee University with the goal of graduating and one day helping people better understand mental illness.

“Upward Bound really provided me with a lot of happiness and joy,” she said. “It provided me with hope for a future that I was so unsure of — hope that I would be able to do what I need and succeed at it.”

Keels is the very kind of student Tom Wilson hoped to help when he decided to endow $500,000 with the Virginia Tech Foundation through his will to provide scholarship assistance or financial aid for participants in Virginia Tech’s Upward Bound and Talent Search programs. Wilson, who died in 2020, had led the two programs as director of TRIO Programs between 1998-2012.

“Tom was so passionate about ensuring that educational opportunities are available to all students, regardless of their background,” said Frances Clark, the current director of TRIO Programs, part of Outreach and International Affairs. “It was important to him that low-income and first-generation students in this region have the opportunity to attend college. These scholarships will help ensure that his remarkable legacy endures.”

His gift is projected to provide about $20,000 each year for scholarships or other financial aid. Online donations to Virginia Tech TRIO Programs can be made through this form.

A native of Marion, Virginia, Wilson received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Concord University before earning a master’s in educational administration from Virginia Tech. While finishing his graduate degree, he started working with the Upward Bound and Talent Search programs, serving as counselor, assistant director, and, eventually, director.

Wilson retired in 2012 but returned to the university in 2015 as a tour bus driver for Undergraduate Admissions, a position he held for five years.

“Tom loved Virginia Tech. He was proud to have gotten his master’s degree here, he loved the football program, and was an avid tailgater. He was proud to work here, and he was always anxious to share the things that make Virginia Tech what it is with everyone he could,” said Joe Lyle, a Talent Search project advisor who worked with Wilson for 12 years and played in a local band with him. “Tom was the archetype of a Hokie, and he wanted to make sure that others had the opportunity to attend the university and come to love it as he did.”

Having grown up in Southwest Virginia, Wilson identified with the students in the region, according to his younger sister, Diane Catley. He was a passionate educator, she said, who was committed to helping young people. For many participants, he was like a father figure.

“I remember years when he was writing proposals to try to keep these programs going. It was extremely stressful to him to think these programs could be cut,” she said. “He did all he could while he was alive and wanted to do more after his passing.”

Upward Bound and Talent Search are federally funded programs designed to help first-generation and low-income students gain access to higher education. Students develop confidence to pursue a college degree through tutoring, counseling, mentoring, college campus tours, and cultural enrichment programs. Upward Bound, for example, brings high school students to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus each summer for a six-week intensive residency program on the Virginia Tech campus. Talent Search gives students and their families assistance in exploring careers, choosing a college, and applying for financial aid.

“It was a calling,” Catley said. “Tom really understood the obstacles that so often stand in the way of students pursuing an education. He knew the difference it could make to help students get away from home and go places they wouldn’t otherwise ever have a chance to go.”

Keels said the trips she took through Upward Bound showed her a future beyond Southwest Virginia. Financial support from the program enabled her to fly to Alabama to visit Tuskegee, and funding from Wilson’s endowment helped her address unmet needs during her first semester there.

“Seeing the campus before saying yes made me fall in love with everything about Tuskegee — from its scenic, old-timey beauty to its miles and miles of hills and community,” Keels said.

Lyle said Wilson spent his life — and dedicated his wealth — to helping bring a generational blessing to the region and its young people.

“Everywhere I go, I meet people who knew Tom or who were impacted by him in some way. Everyone talks about his dedication to his students, to the TRIO programs, and to the Virginia Tech community. They said this while he was alive and they say this now. I can imagine the quiet grin he got when he was satisfied with a situation. I think he will probably be wearing it ear to ear knowing that we say the same things about him after he is gone that we said when he was alive.” 

Latanya Walker, assistant director of the Student Success Center focusing on the Presidential Scholars initiative and the Strada Grant program, also worked with Wilson at TRIO Programs from 1999-2012.

“Tom has a living legacy in the many students he influenced and encouraged and through the outstanding programs supported by his decades of work — both as a counselor and as director. There was no one more committed to TRIO Programs and to the success of the students than Tom Wilson,” she said. “Upward Bound and Talent Search do so much for first-generation and low-income students, and Tom made sure these programs provided everything they could. Of course, he was also an avid Hokie, so it should surprise no one who knew him that he would continue to serve both through this scholarship endowment.”

Wilson introduced Greg Carter, director of strategic enrollment communications and marketing, to TRIO Programs and Virginia Tech when Carter was just 14.

“Little did I know, that introduction would change the trajectory of my life and steer me toward opportunities I never imagined were possible for me,” Carter said. “I was a good student, but I was content with being just good. Tom challenged me to try to be a great student, and his show of steady support and encouragement meant the world to me.

Carter said Wilson wanted the best for his TRIO students and motivated and inspired them to recognize their strengths, cultivate their ambitions, and find their passions.

“He rejoiced in our successes like a proud father would for his sons and daughters,” Carter said. “Tom dedicated his life to being a positive change-maker in the lives of young people and with this generous endowment, the legacy of Tom Wilson continues to create opportunities for another generation of TRIO kids.”

In addition to funding the TRIO Programs endowment, Wilson also left money for two scholarship funds at Concord and to support Blacksburg’s Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, his church for many years where he also served as choir director.

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