Ithaca Times

Ithaca College’s MLK Scholar program celebrates decade-long ambition to expand equal opportunity

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Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 6:00 am

The average college student spends his or her time focused on balancing schoolwork and social life. For a particular group of students at Ithaca College, balancing school and fun is easy, but when factoring in their community service, portfolios and world traveling, things get a little more complicated.

Students in the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar program at Ithaca College spend their time at school not only learning about their chosen major, but also learning about how they can make a difference in the world as bright, young intellectuals.

The MLK Scholar Program is centered around building a learning community for student scholars focused on citizenship and service in the global community. To be considered for the program, a student must be academically talented and come from a historically underrepresented group.

The MLK program began in 1988 at New York University, where Dr. Roger Richardson was hired as the director for the Office of African, Latino and Asian Services. A year before his hiring, a group of minority faculty and staff at NYU petitioned the president of the university to create a scholarship in honor of Dr. King. The president gave permission for funding and support to come directly from the school for the program.

"When I arrived in 1988, they weren't sure how they wanted the program to be administered," Richardson said. "So I asked the vice president if it'd be possible for the MLK Scholars program to be a part of my responsibilities. From 1988 until 1999, I administered and grew that program for NYU."

When he moved back to Ithaca in 2000, Richardson began working on a program similar to the one he helped grow at NYU at the request of the assistant provost, Dr. Tanya Saunders.

"I had already developed the framework at NYU, so at Ithaca College I really had the opportunity to tweak it and improve it from the beginning," he said.

The program was developed specifically for what the school felt would work best with their goal of increasing the number of historically underrepresented groups. After two years of planning, the first class was accepted in 2002, and later graduated in 2006. Many of the elements developed at NYU carried over to the one implemented at Ithaca College.

Funded in full by the college, the scholarship is given to a maximum of 15 incoming freshmen each year. The scholarship award for scholars has increased steadily since it began in 2002, but it has yet to reach the cost of attendance. Current scholars at the school receive a minimum award of $18,000 annually, but the incoming class of 2015 members will receive a minimum award of $25,000 per year. While the merit portion maxes out, scholars receive an additional package based on their financial need, which can extend to the full cost of admission.

"Students need the economics to go to school," Richardson said, "but it's really the programmatic aspects that make this program exciting."

For Richardson, those programs make the difference between a scholar program and a scholarship. Requirements for programming are intense for scholars. The MLK Scholar program renews the awards annually, provided that the scholar keeps up with the expectations for each student. They are required to keep a B-plus average, participate in community service, live in the H.O.M.E. program during the first year, travel on international trips with the program, complete a three-year independent research project, produce an electronic portfolio based on their experiences and participate in all required programs.

A major aspect of the program is the goal of increasing the scholars' status as a global citizen. To fulfill this aspect of the program, the scholars go on domestic and international trips in order to see elements of social justice and equal rights.

During their first year in the program, the students spend their fall break in Georgia, visiting sites that were key to the civil rights movement. Annual destinations include the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Edmund Pettus Bridge and Martin Luther King Jr.'s home.

The purpose of the trip is to give scholars a better understanding of what Luther was doing during the civil rights movement, and give them a feel for his surroundings.

"This trip gives our scholars the opportunity to lay a foundation on the history of the civil rights and social justice movement of the United States," Richardson said. "They hear the stories about the struggles people went through and get to interact with community members who were a part of the movement to get a sense of what challenges and issues they faced."

As upperclassmen, scholars travel outside the United States for a week over the winter break. Past destinations have included Ghana, London, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Morocco. These trips are required as a way of expanding their views in the world. Each student is required to begin work on a research project that will span across their three years of international travel, building each time they see their topic in the new destination. The research is presented through audi, video, photographs, journal entries and even sketches, all building towards an ultimate presentation at the college's Whalen Symposium.

"Ithaca College tries to prepare our students to be citizens in a global context. What better way to understand global issues than to have first-hand opportunities to visit other countries and look at issues impacting people in the United States and then compare some of those same issues in other countries as well," Richardson said. "The whole idea is for them to begin to establish a critical lens in which to see the world and to ask critical questions about the world."

The requirements within the program were created in order to give the scholars the best full-rounded education possible, according to Dr. Richardson. Further, they are designed to assist them on their path to becoming leaders in social justice, as well as helping them to think critically and act compassionately, all while following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.

While there are 41 scholars currently in the program, four students in particular each demonstrate a strong tie to a different aspect of the MLK Scholar program. From an interest in social justice and policy change to reevaluating the meaning of the word diversity, scholars have their four years of college cut out for them.

Increasing Racial Awareness On Campus

For the past four years, MLK Scholar senior Sherry Shen has focused a majority of her free time on the board of the Ithaca College Asian American Alliance and working with student government on the diversity awareness committee and academic policy committee.

Drawing on the confidence that she receives from the MLK Scholar program, Shen is passionate about trying to increase the awareness on campus of Asian American students.

"In high school I was extremely shy," she said. "But then I came here and I became more ambitious in terms of wanting to make a difference and being interested in being involved with the discussion on campus about Asian Americans."

Shen is currently the president of the IC Asian American Alliance, a group that focuses on teaching members, Asian and non-Asian alike, about the history of the race and the struggles they faced and continue to face today.

"Almost every day I talk to my friends on campus about issues directly relating to students of color," Shen said. "One of our biggest problems right now is that we think there needs to be an Asian American studies program on campus."

Kristy Zhen, a sophomore scholar, has been busy trying to implement the Asian American Studies program on campus since the idea was brought up last April at the Asian American Student Identity Panel. After panel and audience members resonated their desire for the minor, Zhen began to conduct research on how to create the program.

She began by distributing a survey to friends and classmates asking them why it was important to have the program, and what focus it should take if implemented. Currently, she is working on a film with two other students that focuses on education and identity to push for the creation of the program.

"This program is important for me because I think that learning about your people's history gives you power, strength, voice and an identity," Zhen said. "Especially if you come from a marginalized and underrepresented community, being able to learn about yourself and being able to relate to your curriculum can make you feel like you have a place in society."

While the program would be created to help Asian Americans learn more about their heritage and history, it would not be confined to only students of Asian descent. Zhen feels that the program would help engage non-Asian students in a dialogue with those who are Asian or Asian American.

"In many ways, this program can unite the campus community," Zhen said. "It can allow non-Asian ALANA students to realize that they share a lot of the same struggles and history with Asian American students, and vice versa."

Overall, Shen and IC Asian American Alliance are pushing for the creation of the group because of the desire to have their history represented on campus.

"It's important that the history and issues that Asians and Asian Americans on this campus face should be acknowledged," Shen said. "Our existence is not being acknowledged if you refuse to talk about our history."

Enacting Social Change Through Experience

As a junior scholar who is working towards a BFA in theatrical arts and design, Lawrence Moten has a busy week. From set design and work-study to volunteering in the theatre school with prospective students, Moten has completely immersed himself in theatre.

For Moten, his involvement starts in the theatre school, a passion that he discovered from an early age, and one that he is expanding upon based on his influences from the MLK Scholar Program.

"MLK is something you had to have started before you came to college," he said. "I grew up virtually unaware of my historical background, of the history of the African Diaspora in the United States, and MLK has brought me closer to it."

Moten believes that learning about a person's history and culture brings them closer to understanding why they are here, and a lack of that knowledge could result in a lack of caring about yourself and, in particular, your education.

"From a young age, I was told that the color of my skin would affect my life," he said. "My mother stressed that I had to be the best that I could be, and to do that I needed to get my education."

It wasn't until Moten went on the fall break trip to the south that the context for his understanding became prevalent. He said that at some point on the trip, everyone has their "moment." For him, it came from hearing the stories of the people and seeing the places where the movement took place.

"I saw the history that is let out of the books, and I couldn't help thinking about how all these people died so that I could have an education," he said. "Why should I waste my life? If I waste my life, then what was the point of all that historical sacrifice?"

Coelis Mendoza, a freshman scholar, went on the civil rights trip last October, and her experiences encouraged her to not only learn more about her history, but to also co-found a campus journal. With the help of two other classmates, they began a journal called "Idealistic Truths: Ithaca College's Undergraduate Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Schooling and Education."

"These people have accomplished so much in their lifetime with such bravery and conviction that I didn't know what I could do to live up to what they have left for us to do," she said. "But then my professor reminded me that you don't have to be the Dr. King of an era to make a significant impact. Even if I'm not going to be a well-known activist, I can at least do my part at a local level. Who knows, maybe I can help somebody else get to that level by publishing them in the journal."

As a result of his experiences on the trip, Moten has decided that a career in theatre as well as social justice is in his future. He recently worked on a play at Ithaca College called "Coram Boy," and was a part of the group on campus that tried to convey to the student body that there are currently more slaves today than at any other time in history. Being a part of theatre productions that stress an underlying, social justice, meaning is a passion for Moten, and he feels that it is something he will continue after college.

"You can't just stop being an MLK Scholar," he said. "To stop would create a gap in your self psyche. I have found my passion. I know I want to do theatre, so now all I have to do is ask myself how I can use that to create a change."


One theme that held true with each of the students is their disappointment with the word "diversity." As part of a scholar program that is only open to those in a minority group, and made up of students who all desire an increased representation of their group, each has a different opinion on the word as a whole.

Courtney Ferguson, a sophomore MLK Scholar majoring in politics, has spent her time becoming involved in campus policy.

As a freshmen, she was one of two students who were brought onto the President Advisory Council on Innovation, an initiative that wanted to look at student and faculty relations on campus, and think of ways to improve those relations. A part of that dialogue focused on the topic of diversity.

"Diversity is such an ambiguous term that we kind of confine and just leave alone without exploration," she said. "We don't explore how the concept of it effects ourselves and our relations with others."

For other MLK Scholars, the term is not perceived correctly in their opinion.

"I definitely don't like the term diversity because I think it is a term that is often used on college campuses to satisfy white students," Shen said. "I want white students to learn more about race struggles, and I do wish this campus had more in terms of power of numbers, but it should be to help provide support to those here, not to satisfy some numbers requirement."

For Moten, the word brings on many interpretations. For the interpretation of diversity in terms of the presence of minority students on campus, however, he disliked the thought.

"If you think about Dr. King's speech I Had a Dream, it doesn't matter the color of your skin, but the content of your character," he said. "I think that should be a goal that is pushed. What people have experienced and what people can bring to the table regardless of their skin color...that should be considered true diversity."

After Graduation

While the program is for students currently on campus, what they learn within the program continues on after they cross the stage.

As the MLK Scholar program is quickly approaching their 10th year as a scholar program at Ithaca College, Richardson is busy putting together a report on how the past 10 years have gone.

"Many students have come in and out of the program, and now they are out in the world," Richardson said. "By graduation, we hope that these students will have established a strong definition of what it means to be a global citizen, and how to apply that to their daily lives."

For Frederick Chandra, a member of the first MLK Scholar graduating class in 2006, the skills he learned from being an MLK Scholar help him out in his daily life. Currently, Chandra is pursuing his dream of working for Apple, and is at an Apple retail store in California. Regardless of this technology-heavy career, he has found several occasions where he had to draw on MLK Scholar teachings.

"I have a customer who grew up in Canada during the Libiyan uprising, and she shared her displeasure with the United States weak response," he said. "She and I ended up having a very long conversation about world conflict, the government's role in peace-keeping missions, and how we could engage the local community to stand up and take action."

For Chandra, the program created a "spirit of perpetual learning, critical thinking and the spirit to continue to make positive change when possible." This lens, which Richardson pushed for when creating the program, stuck with Chandra.

"I also understand the need for coalitions: we are stronger united, and that an individual, no matter how small, can ignite the flame of change," he said.

Each scholar that goes through the program has a different experience. The scholars span across racial groups as well as majors, each choosing a different path for their goal of becoming global figures in the world of social justice and community service.

This passion for making a change, no matter how small, is a theme that has stayed with current scholars. Ferguson believes that each student is making an impact and doing their part to keep the message of Martin Luther King Jr. alive.

"As MLK Scholars, we try to take on the burden of the worlds, and in doing so you can become so overwhelmed," she said. "Whenever I think, ‘Well, am I really doing enough?' the thought that follows is, ‘What if there were 40 less people doing what we are doing? What if they weren't helping that community in Ghana, not painting a church in England? What if there was just one less person doing something that would help better the world?' When you think about it like that, it's entirely different, and it's what makes this program worth participating in."


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