Zell Miller’s Legacy Impacts Dalton State


Former governor and senator Zell Miller created the HOPE scholarship in 1992 to create a better-educated workforce and to invest in the economic future of Georgia.

Two decades later, Diego Alvarado Ruiz benefits from that vision as a HOPE scholarship recipient at Dalton State.

As people mourn Miller’s death and celebrate his life, it’s easy to see how widespread his decisions reached. Miller, a native of the small mountain town of Young Harris, was 86.

Miller was raised by a widowed mother in a home built with rocks she carried from a nearby creek. It had no electricity and running water for many years of his childhood. So when Miller was elected governor, one of his goals was to create a scholarship program to make college accessible for students coming from low and middle income families.

“Being lucky enough to qualify for the HOPE scholarship was a tremendous relief for me,” said Alvarado Ruiz, a communication major. “When I enrolled at Dalton State I knew I wanted to get involved, but class came first, and paying for those classes was top priority.”

Thanks to HOPE, though, Alvarado Ruiz was able to focus on his education and the leadership opportunities available at the College without having to worry about working enough to afford tuition.

“I have been able to focus on joining organizations and taking advantage of opportunities, such as conferences and leadership opportunities, which have benefitted me in such a huge manner,” Alvarado Ruiz said. “I have been able to immerse myself in my interests as well as take advantage of opportunities for the future thanks to the vision of Zell Miller in creating something as amazing as HOPE.”

The HOPE program has provided more than $9.4 billion in financial assistance for educational programs after high school, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission, who distributes the scholarship.

More than a third of Dalton State’s students benefit from the HOPE program.  

“The creation of the HOPE scholarship and pre-K funding through the Georgia Lottery transformed higher education,” said Dr. Margaret Venable, president of Dalton State. “There was a time in my career when schools in Georgia were a backup plan for many Georgians. But today our colleges, including Dalton State, boast a highly competitive process and produce some of the most respected graduates in the country. Gov. Miller’s contributions to education extended well beyond HOPE. Education at all levels in Georgia experienced consistently strong funding during the Miller era.”

Zell Miller visited the Dalton State campus several times, usually as the guest of the late Terry Christie who invited Miller to speak to his government classes about Miller’s life in public service.

In addition to serving as Georgia’s governor and U.S. Senator, Miller also served 16 years as the state’s lieutenant governor as well as in the legislature. He began his political career as mayor of Young Harris.