From The Mechanicsville Local
November 22, 2022
By Christina Amano Dolan, Editor
Hanover High School junior Jada Oakcrum has been selected as one of five Richmond Forum Scholars for the 2022-2023 season of the country’s largest nonprofit speaker series.
The Richmond Forum is a subscription series that offers five programs each year held at the Altria Theater in Richmond, inviting some of the biggest and most influential names in the world to The Richmond Forum stage, including past presidents, sitting heads of state, leaders from the sciences, arts, business and more.
The Richmond Forum Scholars Program is a rare opportunity for five of the region’s highest achieving and most impressive high school juniors to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the renowned speaker series and interact with national and international leaders.
Jada’s fellow Scholars this year are Nina Argel of Monacan High School, Cameron Walker of Trinity Episcopal School, Lily Waehner of James River High School, and Tahlia Wright of Highland Springs High School.
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Sandra Wheeler, the director of student programs for The Richmond Forum, said the program was formed in 2013 when staffing was limited. Looking for extra hands, the organization saw an opportunity to engage with some of the area’s most impressive high school juniors.
Wheeler said the program’s competitiveness is largely due to the “big role” that students play in the forum, such as being paired with one of the featured speakers of their preference and socializing at each forum’s corporate dinner.
“So making sure that we’ve got really impressive high school juniors that are mature and comfortable working and interacting with adults – those are really important factors for us,” Wheeler said.
Attracting around 40 to 50 applicants a year, Wheeler said the pool of students is becoming increasingly competitive. Looking for students who show an active interest in leadership and volunteering, excel academically, and can juggle multiple extra-curricular activities, Jada’s impressive resume and application caught Wheeler’s immediate interest as it exhibited her exceptionalism in virtually every area of school and community involvement.
Holding a current GPA of 4.469, Jada has maintained a rigorous academic, extra-curricular and athletic schedule since her freshman year, participating in varsity basketball, varsity outdoor track and field, and JV soccer while helping to found Inclusion Icons, founding and leading the Young Democrats Club, serving as a student representative for the Superintendent Advisory Council and more. In her sophomore year, Jada introduced the IB Chemistry course after petitioning for interest and presenting her proposal to the Hanover County School Board.
“Jada’s piece around her advocacy at the school board was a defining reason why we chose her,” Wheeler said, adding that it exhibited her willingness to stand before leaders and present a heavily-researched and persuasive case.
Tracie Oakcrum, Jada’s mother, said the announcement of Jada’s acceptance into the program was an exciting moment for the family.
“Of course, as a parent, I could not be prouder,” Oakcrum said. “She works so hard at everything she does, and I know this is a competitive opportunity that would be beneficial to so many students, so we’re really fortunate that she was chosen.”
Never shying away from hard work, Jada only recently discovered the program and immediately applied, spending around 20 hours total forming her application and video essay while maintaining her rigorous schedule.
“This program has taught her that ‘Wow, there’s things out here that I didn’t even realize, and it’s on me to actually seek them out rather than to wait for them to come to me,’” Oakcrum said of her daughter.
Jada discovered the program after being invited, as president of the Young Democrats Club, to a Richmond Forum program last year that featured Michelle Obama. She sat in the forum’s Student Room, where she was able to interact with the former First Lady in an intimate setting with other area students.
The Student Room provides the opportunity for students to view sold-out Richmond Forum programs in a separate room from the main theater and even interact directly with the speakers through their own Q+A program. The room can hold up to 100 students and is free admission. Students can apply for the room through The Richmond Forum website.
One of the primary responsibilities of the Scholars is introducing speakers to students in the Student Room and moderating the discussion.
Jada served as the moderator for this season’s first program held on Nov. 12, which featured Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (USA, Ret.) and his program, “The State of Play: Geopolitical Actions, Reactions & Consequences.” McMaster holds 34 years of military service, was president for National Security Affairs from 2017 to 2018 and currently operates from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
“She commented that General McMaster was so down to earth and pleasant, and that she really enjoyed meeting him and was surprised at how relatable he was,” Oakcrum said, adding that exposure to diverse viewpoints of the various speakers, VIP guests and even fellow Scholars is the greatest benefit of the program.
Other benefits of the program include building confidence in public speaking, inspiring intellectual curiosity and offering a plethora of networking opportunities.
Oakcrum added that the program is preparing Jada for her future career in countless ways, as she currently plans to major in finance and mathematics and eventually become a CFO. Oakcrum believes that Jada’s growing ability to conduct herself with different people will prepare her well for the business world.
Attracting a variety of students who hold different career interests, Wheeler said the program prepares students for success in many areas – especially with its rich network of scholar alumni who have or are attending universities such as Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and more.
“The main benefit is your ability to hone your leadership skills and communication skills with adults,” Wheeler said.
She said the Scholars “thrived” in this season’s first forum as they successfully checked guests in for the corporate dinner, distributed wristbands and engaged in conversation with the guests seated at their assigned tables. Scholars even went “above and beyond” in their roles, as they promptly addressed an urgent medical situation in the theater.
Scholars are gearing up for the season’s next forum on Jan. 21, 2023, featuring 2021 Nobel Prize winner and journalist Maria Ressa. The remainder of the season will feature Ella Al-Shamahi on Feb. 18, an accomplished philanthropist, National Geographic Explorer and stand-up comic; John Lithgow on March 18, a prolific actor who holds two Tony’s, six Emmy’s, and two Oscar nominations; and philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Thomas Chatterton Williams on April 29.
“I feel so privileged to have been accepted as a Richmond Forum Scholar this year,” Jada said. “I’m excited to be exposed up close and personal to such a diverse group of speakers on topics that are of importance even to my generation, while getting to serve and cultivate friendships with Scholars.”
“While all of the speakers are great, I am most excited to meet Dr. Cornel West and Thomas Chatterton Williams,” Jada added. “They will be speaking on a ‘redemptive cultural that transcends polarization’ and the importance of tolerance on both political and cultural views, which I find especially important in today’s world.”
Wheeler said Scholars have commonly referred to the program as a “life-changing experience” and encourages upcoming high school juniors to apply for upcoming seasons.
“We would love for people to spread the word, and we’re always looking for engaged students – Hanover has a ton of them,” Wheeler said.
She said she finds joy in watching the Scholars grow and diversifying The Richmond Forum audience with the presence of future leaders.