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The Ron Brown Scholar Program

By on June 23, 2011

Ron Brown ScholarshipIn June 2001, as tens of thousands of college students across the nation receive a handshake and a diploma, fourteen especially remarkable young people will graduate from prestigious universities like Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Stanford and MIT. These special students, the first winners of the nation’s most lucrative scholarship for African Americans, are all leaders—unique because of their unusual potential to make a significant contribution to society.

The Ron Brown Scholar Program, now in its fifth year, offers more than a check to cover tuition and textbooks. Although the program provides the generous sum of $40,000 to finance its students’ academic careers, financial assistance is only one aspect of a comprehensive program that becomes a second family, think tank and empowerment network all in one package.

Young people committed to social change who become Ron Brown Scholars find themselves within an association of ongoing support and referrals, one that helps them connect with broad resources—from health insurance, to summer internships, to careers in corporate America. Applicants are chosen with respect to academic promise, leadership ability, communication skills, school and community involvement, and financial need.

“Imagine if you could collect a group of hardworking students with a real desire to make a difference. What if you could bring that group together and keep them together for fifteen years; and keep every class together with them after that. They would know, trust, and connect with each other, becoming an African American power base—a network of public servants who do good,” says Michael Mallory, the program’s executive director.

As an organization, the Ron Brown Scholar program does everything possible to further the existence of that African American network of public servants. Students are set up with internships in charitable organizations like the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity where their energy can truly make a difference, as well as in work study programs that push them straight into leadership roles in corporate America. If a student has a particular passion for an issue, he or she might be provided with a stipend to study the issue in depth.

Mallory cites one student who plans to research the “three strikes” law that sends individuals convicted of sometimes minor offenses to prison for life. Three strikes, and other issues that impact the African American community, will become the focus of the Council of African American Affairs, a new program affiliated with the Ron Brown Scholar Program. The council and an Alumni Association will keep the scholars connected and committed for years to come.

Named after Ron Brown, the distinguished Secretary of Commerce who was lost tragically in a 1996 plane crash, and supported by the CAP Charitable Foundation, the Ron Brown Scholar Program focuses on young African Americans of outstanding promise. The CAP Foundation’s founder, Anthony Pilaro, a businessman who made his fortune through duty free shops, came up with the initial concept for the scholarship program.

The synergy that built the scholar program has an almost supernatural power, one that has gathered many friends and supporters. “We had the idea for the program but we didn’t have a name,” Mallory says. “We started brainstorming and throwing names around on August 1, 1996, which coincidentally would have been Ron Brown’s first birthday after his death. Ron Brown was a brilliant public servant. We loved the idea of using his name but didn’t know if we could get permission. We made the contact with Vice President Gore and the Brown Family—within two to three hours it was decided.” Friends of the program who regularly speak with students include Gen. Colin Powell and William Raspberry, the celebrated Washington Post columnist.

Mallory says that he began hearing from people who had interacted with Secretary Brown immediately. “The impact that he had on people’s lives is what we are trying to replicate,” Mallory says. “Brown did this type of mentoring. His approach was not just to offer his advice. He would say, ‘I give you my hand. Call on me any time.’ “

Brown’s daughter, Tracey, serves on the scholarship selection committee. “She is sweet and sensitive,” Mallory says. “She has the charisma her father had.” Each graduating high school senior in the Ron Brown Scholar Program receives a medallion depicting Brown with an inscription in Latin, “Poteris modo velis,” (You can if you will.)

Mallory relishes his role as mentor to the bright young people he works with, and his vision is far-reaching. “Once you understand connectivity between people and how much influence that can have, you start to think in the long term,” Mallory says. “We are thinking in terms of access, not only for our students today, but to enable their great grandchildren to make it to corporate boards and beyond.”

Mallory describes the Ron Brown Scholar Program as “holistic,” as its goal is to provide a broad spectrum of support, whether students need nurturing socially, emotionally, or just some common sense advice to figure out their next step. Mallory does whatever it takes to ensure that students succeed. If a student needs health insurance, Mallory makes sure they get it. If they need a reassuring phone call at three in the morning, Mallory invites them to call him at home—collect. As executive director, Mallory shies away from the limelight, preferring that any attention be focused on the scholars. But clearly, his ability to make and keep connections among people is the energy that drives the Ron Brown Scholar Program.

Mallory is protective of the details of the students’ personal circumstances, since a number of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. He is especially impressed and proud of the students who have prevailed in spite of overwhelming odds. The transition from high school into college is difficult for all kids, even those from affluent homes. Increased academic competition, living away from home, and peer pressure to drink excessively make a first year at college challenging for everyone. But for disadvantaged youth, the pressures of campus life are unique, and feeling at home in an Ivy League classroom, when there may be only one Black student in the room, can be overwhelming.

When Mallory himself graduated from high school, people from his own community tended to discourage high school grads from moving on to college. “Now,” he says, “although many of those old barriers no longer exist, you may still have a kid who wants to go to Harvard and someone will say, ‘Come on, are you really smart enough?’ But here at the Ron Brown Scholar Program, we treat our kids like children of corporate America. Our kids’ place is any place.”

Students with troubled home lives must break away from negative influences to be successful on college campuses. “These kids sometimes have to battle with a family that views higher education as an attempt to make themselves better than their parents,” Mallory says. Or, a parent might insist that a child with a scholarship pay more rent to live in the family home. “Someone has to be there to say it’s ok to say no,” Mallory says.

However, despite impoverished backgrounds and other obstacles, the Ron Brown Scholars have proven to themselves and others that they can do more than just succeed—they can excel. Scholars routinely maintain high grade point averages and take on demanding projects during their college terms. For example, Diarra K. Lamar graduated in the top one percent of his class at Harvard, and was accepted by all of the top ten medical schools he applied to. Antonia Henry traveled to South Africa on a grant to study childhood asthma. Other students, initially lacking confidence, have blossomed while working their way through their studies. “Each student has been really successful,” Mallory says.

“These young men and women deserve recognition,” Mallory says. “Mark my word—they are going to do good. I believe there will be a ripple effect as they influence others. We are shooting for the moon.”

For more information, contact:
The Ron Brown Scholar Program, CAP Charitable Foundation (USA)
1160 Pepsi Place, Suite 110-B, Charlottesville, VA 22901, (804) 964-1588

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