Posted: April 19, 2021

The Millennium Scholars Program supports high-achieving students to realize their dreams of a Penn State education and beyond.

Graziella Pilato. Photo: Michael Houtz

Graziella Pilato. Photo: Michael Houtz

Graziella Pilato, a State College native majoring in plant science, grew up watching her mom work hard toward both her bachelor's and doctoral degrees. According to Pilato, the experience taught her persistence, perseverance, and a strong work ethic. Now, with the support of the Penn State Millennium Scholars Program, a merit-based program for undergraduate students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Pilato is poised to graduate in May 2021 and take the next steps in her personal journey toward a doctorate.

Pilato learned about the Millennium Scholars Program while she was a senior in high school. As she explored the potential of going to other universities, Penn State's Plant Science degree program stood out. Being offered a spot in the Millennium Scholars Program made Penn State's offer one she could not turn down.

"Millennium Scholars provides a community," said Pilato. "My cohort is really close and we're all there for each other. Being in Millennium put me in a space where I was exposed to more diversity with a community of students who looked like me, were having similar experiences as me, and gave all of us an opportunity to come together and support one another."

The Millennium Scholars Program, which welcomed its first incoming class in 2013, fosters a diverse, tight-knit, and supportive learning community for high-achieving students who are committed to not only pursuing advanced degrees but also increasing the diversity of professionals in STEM fields and becoming the next leaders. Currently, five colleges at the University Park campus offer the program and support student cohorts, including the College of Agricultural Sciences. For students like Pilato, the program offers numerous benefits.

"While it shouldn't all be about financial aid, the program allows me and my fellow students to focus solely on our educations and not have to worry about having a job or finding enough funding to cover the costs of going to school," Pilato said. "We have access to tutors and mentors, and with Penn State being so large, [the program] also creates this really tight-knit community for us.

"I'm so grateful for this program. Thinking back on my experience and all the opportunities i've had, including doing summer research and working in a lab in the food science department, I never would have known about those opportunities and had access to them as early as I did without Millennium."

Transition to College

The Millennium Scholars Program began in the College of Engineering and the Eberly College of Science and expanded to include the Colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Information Sciences and Technology. It begins each year with a six-week Summer Bridge program for the first-year students. During those first few weeks of college life, the students earn seven credits of course work, get introduced to the research environment, and enjoy getting to know one another through shared meals, classes, field trips, and study groups.

"The summer program really gets the students in each cohort prepared for the next four years," said Derek James, coordinator of multicultural programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "During those first few weeks, the group is building accountability and that family atmosphere ensures no one gets left behind."

For the next four years, Millennium Scholars work together to ensure they all succeed. They participate in summer research and internship opportunities, and tackle their own independent research project for their theses, a graduation requirement of the program and integral for admission to top Ph.D. Programs.

Supporting the Best

According to James, one of the goals of the program is the retention of students in STEM disciplines and ensuring they have what they need to get where they want to go. The goal is to build the best undergraduate students who are prepared to enter a top-notch doctoral STEM program and then become the next leaders in STEM fields.

"The Millennium Scholars Program at Penn State does an outstanding job of recruiting and mentoring excellent scholars from diverse backgrounds," said Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. "These high-achieving students are highly committed not only to their areas of study but also to earning their doctoral degrees and joining the next generation of leaders in their chosen STEM fields. Over a lifetime, Millennium Scholars thereby provide examples and mentors to other young people. Participating in Millennium Scholars is also, however, a significant commitment for the college, and cannot be financed from our University funding. It is through the support of our faculty and staff, philanthropy, and the dedication of the students themselves that we are able to offer this outstanding program. We hope to see this program continue to grow."

Patreese Ingram, assistant dean of multicultural affairs and professor in the college, is a strong advocate for the program and, like Dean Roush, recognizes the critical importance of offering such a program.

"The Millennium Scholars Program provides opportunities for students to excel in leadership roles in research fields, which may contribute to cutting-edge advancements that may improve the lives of our citizenry. Without this opportunity, the talents and contributions of many of these highly skilled students may not be realized."

Alumni Assistance

Hosting the Millennium Scholars Program and supporting the students accepted into the program requires a considerable financial commitment by each college. Each Millennium Scholar receives a substantial financial aid package, which includes tuition, room, and board for in-state students and tuition only for out-of-state students. The financial aid is renewable for all four years, if the students maintain good academic standing. Funding may come from a variety of Penn State and external scholarship sources, as well as from federal and state financial aid. Students may also pursue admission to the Schreyer Honors College.

Philanthropy is crucial to allowing the College of Agricultural Sciences, as well as the other colleges, to continue to welcome new cohorts of students to the Millennium Scholars Program moving forward. The College of Ag Sciences awards scholarships to one in four students in the college, yet only a few of those scholarships can be used to support Millennium Scholars at this time. However, in the last year, the college received gifts from donors who created scholarships that can support students in the program. Two scholarships were created through the University's recently concluded Educational Equity Matching Program, which was part of Penn State's current fundraising campaign, "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," while another will be created in the future through an estate gift.

Duane Norman, a 1964 Agricultural Sciences and Industries graduate, and his wife, Roslyn, created the H. Duane and Roslyn W. Norman Millennium Scholars Scholarship, while Terry (1966 General Agriculture) and Connie (1965 Sociology) Eshenour created the Terry and Constance Updegraff Eshenour Educational Equity Scholarship. In addition, Paul Heffner, a 1968 Animal Industry graduate, has pledged an estate gift to create the Paul Heffner Scholarship in the College of Agricultural Sciences with first preference given to Millennium Scholars.

All three recognize the importance of developing the next generation of leaders in agricultural and STEM fields. They also understand how expensive pursuing higher education can be today but feel that those who want to go to college should have that opportunity without substantial debt.

"Times have changed since I was in college, and students today face a difficult challenge in paying the cost of higher education," said Heffner. "It's important that students have the option of going to college, especially with the help of financial aid and scholarships, and I hope as a result they can realize their dreams."

The Normans echoed Heffner's sentiments, saying, "It's important to help alleviate the stress of the financial burden that college can be for students. We believe those who want to go to college should be able to do so."

Bright Future

For students like Pilato, the Millennium Scholars Program has truly made a difference. It has opened doors, created a community, and reduced or relieved the financial burden students face in pursuit of their college degrees.

"It's hard to put into words what this program has done for me," said Pilato, who is currently in the process of applying to graduate programs where she hopes to go into sustainable agriculture and explore small-scale sustenance farming systems. "As a student coming from a lower income community and background, I truly would not have been able to make it through college without the funding the program provided. I have so many more options and now I'm going to get my Ph.D. And be able to start impacting the future of academic and STEM fields. It's been really empowering to be in a community with people from all different backgrounds."

"There has yet to be a student who hasn't benefited from being both in the College of Ag Sciences and in Millennium," said James. "These students have instilled in them while they're here that they'll end up giving back, and I, without a doubt, believe that. They were all destined for greatness, with or without Millennium, but what I'm most proud of is that because of the Millennium Scholars Program, they had the resources and opportunities to reach that greatness."

--Susan Bedsworth

Individuals interested in exploring the option of supporting the Millennium Scholars Program in the College of Agricultural Sciences as part of their philanthropy can contact Lauren Steinberg (, senior director of Development in the College of Agricultural Sciences.