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National Scholarship Program Rewards Academically Talented Black Students

The Ron Brown Scholars program is among those rare entities that boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.

Many of the scholarship winners chosen in the highly competitive program grew up in abject poverty. Yet, not a single one has failed or dropped out because the program gave them the support they needed to succeed. During its 13-year history, more than half of the scholars have matriculated at Ivy League institutions. Another 21 percent have enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford and Duke universities.

Given that a majority of its candidates are on their way to elite universities before receiving their scholarships, program executive director Michael Mallory is often asked why the Ron Brown Scholars program focuses its efforts on students who are on a solid trajectory, rather than those struggling at community colleges or small historically Black institutions.

“First, our average family income is only $23,000 a year, which is close to poverty, and we feel that it is fitting to reward people who have often overcome extraordinary barriers to become outstanding students,” he says. “Some people grow up in crack houses and become addicts. Others study their way out. Many of our students have amazing abilities for isolating and insulating themselves from the bad things around them and we encourage that talent as a way to survive.”

Established in 1996 to honor the memory of Ron Brown, the first Black Secretary of Commerce who died in a 1996 military plane crash in Croatia while on a trade mission to Europe, the program each year awards $40,000 grants over four years for select African-American students to attend college.

The Ron Brown Scholars program received nearly 6,000 scholarship applications this year, but just 12 students were accepted. These students of color have outstanding academic records, stellar test scores and have demonstrated leadership potential and a commitment to community.

With its graduation rate, the program, which seeks to groom the next generation of Black leaders by providing financial, mentoring and networking support needed to compete at selective institutions, could well be America’s most successful educational initiative for Black students.

A Charitable Investment

RBSP alumnus Lanakila McMahan recalls how the financial assistance helped him persist and fit in at Duke.

“When you’re on a campus like Duke, the other students — even the Black ones — simply assume you have some money. But I came from a family that couldn’t give me any financial support at all. This program changed my life. You can use the funds to buy basic things like eyeglasses, or a laptop or even a bus ticket home for the holidays,” says McMahan, who is now working on a Ph.D. in environmental biology and water quality at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health.

However, the program doesn’t see its work primarily as a charity serving individual worthy students but as an investment in the future of the Black community and the nation. It selects outstanding students who are service-minded and then tries to give them the tools to bring change back to neighborhoods that desperately need their talents.

“Black students from truly disadvantaged families who make it into top schools today really are different from middle class and rich kids,” says Dr. Robert Carter, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Almost by definition, they have to have a remarkable ability to visualize themselves and their futures independently of the circumstances that originally surrounded them. This is absolutely what is needed to transform these communities as a whole. However, to do that, they still need a lot of mentoring to develop the social skills needed to help social change and a support group of  friends dedicated to doing something else than just getting rich.”      

By introducing scholars to a cadre of talented peers, providing them with close mentoring and giving them easy access to an experienced staff, the program seeks to give Brown Scholars some of the same social advantages other elite students get through family connections.

“Imagine having an uncle who is a senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company, who can make a phone call to help you get a summer internship,” says Mallory. “Think of how much more confident you would feel if you already had an older brother or sister who had graduated from the same campus.”

 “You can go far if you are very smart but you can go farther if you’re connected to an organization that can introduce you to a (former Secretary of State Condeleeza) Rice or a Black professor who is the head of surgery at a major hospital. Every scholar is assigned a mentor and at least two other people to call on for help and direction. It is very easy to underestimate how much support even excellent students can need,” Mallory says.

Brown scholar Alvin Hough Jr. can attest to that.

“Before reaching college, I was frequently among the best at most everything I wholeheartedly set out to accomplish,” Hough says. “Upon reaching Harvard (University), I received a huge slap in the face and was too stubborn and prideful to ask for the assistance I desperately needed to boost my grades.”

During the year Hough was forced to take off, the program helped him find a job, wrote the college on his behalf and helped him rebuild his self-confidence. After returning, Hough improved his grades to a 3.0 and graduated with his original class.

Integrating Service

Mondaire Jones, who was raised by a single parent with a disability, says he knew as early as ninth grade that he wouldn’t make it to college without financial help. He became a Ron Brown Scholar in 2005 and will enter Harvard Law School this fall.

“But, the most important thing about the program isn’t the money. It’s knowing that you’re not alone,” he says. “At a place like this, people are surprised if your family rented an apartment rather than owned its own home. As a Ron Brown Scholar, I know people who’ve been homeless or slept in cars and still went on to graduate and become successful. I’ve got an extended family of mentors and friends who can help me persevere.”

Last year, the program underwent an objective external review by Wilder Research, which regularly helps nonprofit organizations examine their programs and direction. The review found that the scholars had a high rate of community and campus leadership.

“All current scholars have been involved in their campus communities this past school year and most (85 percent) have participated in a student group or club. Seven in 10 reported having held a leadership position on campus and just over one quarter reported having held a leadership position off campus. Among alumni scholars, almost two-thirds indicate having held a leadership position in the past year in graduate/ professional school, at work, or in their community.”

One way the scholars have begun to lead is by organizing an online program called L.E.A.D. that will help other students learn how to integrate leadership and service. Working through the University of Virginia History Department Explorations in Black Leadership, it features a standards-based curriculum and volunteer mentors to provide student groups with the tools to develop projects to help serve their local communities. The project has attracted funding from Verizon, State Farm and the Claude Moore Charitable Trust.

Wilder Research says the scholars program will have to continue to evolve and redefine its goals now that there are more alumni members than undergraduates. However, it concluded that “scholars felt the support, guidance opportunities and long-term friendships provided by members of this community had a large impact on their own progress and success, helping to shape and sometimes alter the trajectories of their lives.”

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