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Ford Fellows Fund established to increase minority participation in Ph.D. program

At the 1993 annual conference of minority recipients of the Ford
Foundation’s Fellowship Fund for doctoral candidates and graduates, Dr.
Bai Akridge asked this question of the participants: “If we’ve agreed
that this program is so important to us, why aren’t we doing something
to help ourselves, too?”

Two years later, Akridge and other former fellows answered that
question by establishing the Ford Fellows Fund to raise money to
increase the number of doctoral fellowships the foundation awards to
minorities each year. Since 1980, 1,323 minorities have received Ford
Foundation Fellowships with the largest number, 42 percent, going to
African Americans.

Akridge said, “We [former fellows] agreed that it’s so important
what [the Ford Foundation is] doing and that we should own part of it
ourselves by giving money.”

Akridge, a program director for international telecommunications
policy at IBM in Washington, D.C., volunteers time, year round, as the
chair of the Ford Fellows Fund. During the two years that it has been
in existence, solicitations from former Ford Fellows, corporations, and
matching funds from the Ford Foundation have resulted in enough money
to fund two $18,000 awards to minorities at the dissertation stage of
their doctoral studies.

The Ford Foundation’s Dissertation Fellowship program is one of
three awards set up specifically for Alaskan Natives, African
Americans, Mexican Americans/Chicanos, Native American Indians, Native
Pacific Islanders and Puerto Ricans. The other programs are Ford’s
Predoctoral and Postdoctoral awards. For three years, Predoctoral
recipients, those just starting to work on their Ph.D., receive an
annual stipend of $14,000 for living expenses and their tuition is
waived. Postdoctoral fellows, recent Ph.D. recipients, are given a one
year, $25,000 stipend and additional funds for travel and research on
an approved topic.

These three programs were established in order to increase the
number of minorities with Ph.D. credentials at higher education
institutions in areas where they have historically been
under-represented. Graduate students pursuing a Ph.D. in disciplines
where minorities have earned a large number of doctorate degrees – such
as education, social work, and medicine – are not eligible for the
program. Although the Ford Foundation is not strict in its requirement
that fellows teach when they complete the program, 90 percent do pursue
teaching or research positions at universities and colleges.

Akridge, who was a 1992 Postdoctoral Fellow studying political
science at the University of Wisconsin, said, “The bedrock of this
whole thing is the individual dollars the fellows give. That’s the most
important piece of this fund.”

Dr. Yolanda Comedy, a senior policy analyst with the President’s
Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, received a Ford
Dissertation Fellowship in 1991 after completing her coursework at
Indiana University. She used her award to fund a year of research for
her dissertation on land redistribution policies in Zimbabwe. She
remembers being at the conference for Ford Fellows in California when
Akridge challenged the participants to take an active role in the
program by supporting the Ford Fellows Fund so that more minorities
could get much needed financial assistance in order to complete their

“I had gotten a letter asking for a contribution, but I was just
finishing my dissertation, was teaching one course and barely paying my
rent,” Comedy said. “But when I heard Bai’s presentation, I was hooked.
I realized we as fellows were going to raise money to actually fund a
fellow and I got on the bandwagon immediately,” she said. “It makes me
feel great to know that we helped another person of color complete
their Ph.D. This is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”

In addition to giving a donation to the fund, Comedy also wrote this
year’s fundraising letter and is a regular volunteer Akridge depends on
for a variety of tasks.

Many former and current fellows say they give to the Ford Fellows
Fund because the program not only helped them fine tune their career
goals and opened doors for them because of its prestige, but, the
fellowship was the determining factor in enabling them to attend
graduate school.

Nnamdi Pole completed his coursework in clinical psychology at the
University of California at Berkeley on a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship.
He did not receive one of the Ford’s Dissertation Fellowships, but is
thinking of reapplying in the fall. He said because Berkeley did not
offer him a large financial package, the fellowship made the difference
in whether he would be able to attend school there. And although the
Ford Fellows Fund does not solicit money from those who haven’t
completed their degrees, Pole is so impressed with the fund that he
said, “When I get an income, I will always support it.”

Akridge says the second most important element that has made the
fund a success is the support they have received from the National
Research Council, which administers the Ford Foundation Fellowship
programs and keeps an accounting of the Ford Fellows donations. For
example, NRC sends out mass mailings, such as fundraising letters to
individuals and corporations, for the Fund as well.

Chris O’Brien, program supervisor for the NRC says the Ford Fellows
Fund that Akridge spearheaded marks the first time that they have had
recipients of the foundation form a fund to make, contributions to a
program that benefitted them.

“It’s never been done before and it’s unbelievable that they would
do this,” O’Brien said. “These are people who believe in dreams and
believe in helping others realize their dreams by helping those coming
up behind them.”

Although the Ford Foundation does not designate which recipient’s
fellowship was funded by the Ford Fellows Fund, which Akridge says is
not important, they know that additional awards were made that would
not have been possible without the fund’s dollars. According to
O’Brien, last year there was enough money in the Ford Foundation Fund
to award twenty-nine Dissertation Fellowships. Because of the money
provided through the Ford Fellows Fund, they were able to award an
additional Dissertation Fellowship, bringing the total to thirty
recipients last year.

Another reason the fund was created was so that more minorities can
get into the program and be provided with a strong support network
among fellows. That network is seen as being instrumental in inspiring
Ph.D. candidates to complete their degrees. It is enhanced and
maintained by the annual conference of current and former fellows held
each year. Akridge describes the conference, where former and current
fellows and well known scholars such as Dr. John Hope Franklin and Dr.
Mary Frances Berry are presenters, as an extraordinary event.

“Imagine the best and brightest minds of color together for a couple
of days. We learn so much about each other’s cultures and research,” he

As to the future of the Ford Fellows Fund, Akridge hopes it will
attract more corporate sponsors so that they can increase the number of
fellowships added to the program each year as a result of the Ford
Fellows Fund. He hopes former fellows who are working for a corporation
and not in a university setting, will get their employers to donate to
the fund and he encourages former Ford Fellow recipients to become more
involved in the necessary daily work of the effort.

To contact the Ford Fellows Fund, write to: National Academy of
Science, c/o National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW,
TJ2047, Washington, D.C., 20418; or call 202-334-2861 or 202-515-5016.
The e-mail address is: [email protected]

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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