NEW YORK -- Fifty of the nation's brightest minds of tomorrow convened at Major League Baseball headquarters on Monday, when the Jackie Robinson Foundation held its Scholar Luncheon. Several students got to mingle with MLB executives as part of a networking weekend, which will conclude with the foundation's Annual Awards Dinner on Monday night.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation has provided scholarships for more than 200 students in this academic year, and those scholars are enrolled in 90 colleges and universities around the nation. The Foundation invites several of those students to New York once a year for the Jackie Robinson Weekend, which consists of several educational and social programs.
"My weekend has been incredible," said Esosa Osa, a junior at Duke University. "I got to go to a great jazz concert, and I got to sit on panels that talked about my career interests in economics and finance, as well as sustainability. I've had the chance to listen in on experts on the Middle East, and I got to learn more about what's going on there. I got to ask questions of people that have interviewed [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi multiple times, people who are just at the forefront of their careers.
"And I'm going to be able to go to an event tonight at the Waldorf Astoria, which is going to be incredible. We're going to be honoring all the scholars, and we'll be having lots of fun. Jackie Robinson Weekend presents one of the greatest ways of any diversity program out there to just network and to gain a huge perspective on what you can succeed in and what you can become. You see Jackie Robinson alumni, and they're all doing incredible things with their lives and they mentor you."
The Jackie Robinson Foundation, named in honor of the legendary sporting and civil rights icon, has been providing scholarships and graduate school grants to distinguished minority students with financial needs since 1973.
The Foundation's working slogan is "Education is our pitch," and that offering came in right over the plate on Monday, when the scholars got to visit MLB headquarters at 245 Park Avenue and had a chance to meet people close to their chosen disciplines.
That opportunity came in the way of a relaxed and informal luncheon on Monday, with executives seated at tables with students and casually talking about their lives and their career trajectories. Wendy Lewis, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, said she often leaves the Scholar Luncheon with a renewed sense of purpose.
"It's always wonderful for me to be a part of working with the Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars," said Lewis. "As I was just sharing with my colleagues, each year, when I look at them, I just see the best and the brightest, and it makes you very excited about the future. The Foundation itself is just tremendous, and I personally feel gratified to be part of that legacy. But the students do as much to inspire me as hopefully I have to inspire them. ... It was just wonderful. I always feel good after I talk to them."
Lewis said the students at her table had a wide range of interests and aspirations, including but not limited to bioengineering, global finance and meteorology. One scholar, she said, even aspires to win the Academy Award for best makeup artist. On some level, though, Lewis can't help but look at the group of well-rounded students and see a younger version of herself.
"Yes, I do. And it's so cute," Lewis said. "But I also see my children and my grandchildren, and I'm inspired and reminded to tell my grandchildren how hard they have to work and how competitive it is. This is the new baseline. And it's challenging."
Prince Adotama, a pre-med major at Baylor University, said that he's been to New York just four times in his life, all due to his involvement in the Jackie Robinson Foundation. He also said that he considers the experience invaluable from many perspectives, none more important than the ability to meet other advanced students with similar backgrounds and ambitions.
"It's just great to see a lot of other minority students with similar drive and determination," Adotama said, "a zeal for school, so to speak.
"My scholarship was absolutely a necessary thing for me to go to Baylor. The price of tuition is a lot more expensive than a public school, and the scholarship enabled me to enjoy college and not worry about the financial stresses. A lot of my friends aren't able to stay in school, but luckily, I had a program like the Jackie Robinson Foundation to help sponsor me.
"I'm not scared to graduate. I'm excited. I'm ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. I definitely am."
"The weekend has been great," added Curterris Golden, a football player and business major at Missouri University of Science and Technology. "It's the best thing for you, better than the actual finances they give you for school, because when you get here, it's like a family. I have friends here that I only see for four days out of my life, but when I came back, I trust them.
"These are some of the people that are going to be leaders, so why not get to know them? When I'm at another school, they'll be the first people I talk to, because I know they'll show me around and they're going to lead me in the right direction. I don't have to worry about any trouble when I'm around these people. This is the perfect crowd to be with."
Both Adotama and Golden said they plan on attending graduate school when they've completed their undergraduate studies, and both said they plan on keeping in touch with their peers in the program. And it's that sense of camraderie, that feeling of empathy and shared experience the scholars share, that could be the Foundation's greatest legacy.
"I do think it would've made a difference," said Lewis of having this type of experience early on in her career. "I mean, I did just fine, but not only getting the opportunity to talk to very accomplished professionals, but to do it in a nurturing and giving environment that the Foundation provides, you wish that for every kid everywhere. The Jackie Robinson Foundation is committed to encouraging and producing the best. Everybody should have this kind of experience at least once [in their life]."
And to their credit, many of the respective scholars already have that perspective. They don't need to wait for the passage of time to appreciate their experience, to know that their hard work has been rewarded and recognized.
"I think it's more than a privilege," said Osa. "I think a lot of people, after having success, lose the idea that it came with hard work. And with success also comes opportunity. It's not just a matter of how hard you work; it's a matter of the opportunity that you're given and the luck that you have. I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten this opportunity to be a part of this organization. Hopefully, at some point, hard work and preparation will meet opportunity, and I can really succeed with the help of Jackie Robinson."