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Robinson Foundation Scholars display strong bond

In New York for mentoring and leadership conference, students more like family

One of the major efforts of the Jackie Robinson Foundation is the annual Scholars' Mentoring and Leadership Conference. All 160 of the students were in New York on Monday for the conference as well as the annual foundation dinner.

The students, from 33 different colleges spanning from New York to Los Angeles, came for developmental workshops, career exploration seminars and networking opportunities.

On Monday afternoon, the scholars were in the offices, taking a tour and giving some students their first experience in front of a teleprompter when they visited the studios to recite lines from Robinson's Hall of Fame speech as part of a video in his honor.

In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute.

The mood was light in the control room as each student took his turn.

"I just didn't want to mess up," said Janea Osby, a Human Biology and Society major at UCLA. "I always see people doing it. Just watching from behind the scenes, it looks like it's easy, but it's not as easy as it looks."

The focus on networking and career success is important to the students.

"It's a family that provides support both financially and emotionally," said Sennay Ghenbot, a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.

It's Ghenbot's first year with the Foundation, but he said the networking opportunities he's already had have been substantial. Along with his fellow scholars, he learned more about his heritage through sponsored genealogical testing and got to relax with fellow scholars to an early screening of "42," a Warner Bros. film about the life of Robinson. The students also attend the Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner, a formal send-off at the end of the four-day conference, on Monday night.

"We've been here since 1973, and at this conference we have alumni and past scholars come back and talk to people here and they show what you want to be," Ghenbot said.

The foundation also offers each student a $7,500 renewable scholarship.

After submitting applications in the fall, 60 graduating high school students are selected yearly based on need and academic performance. Scholar Advisor Committee Chair Kendra Gaither said finances are just part of the program's larger benefits as students are then made a part of the Foundation's Mentoring and Leadership Development Curriculum.

She added that money can't be the only answer when trying to battle declining rates of minority retention and graduation in universities.

"Students, based on their career track or interests, are matched with a corporate sponsor whose business lines up with that scholar's interests," Gaither said. "It gives a great opportunity for the students to receive personal mentoring from sponsors and learn more about the business and apply their talent.

"The scholars have mentors from the alumni as well as from their graduate communities in their field. The three groups together try to help and support the growth of the whole person as they go through the four years of the program."

The Foundation has a 99 percent graduation rate.

Gaither said the Foundation's family-like atmosphere is a key part of its success. She credited founder Rachel Robinson, who just a year after losing a key member of her family, decided to extend that family to others.

"From very early on in the development of the Foundation, there were not only workshops, but 'rap sessions' and 'family sessions' where students could share in a non-judgmental and loving environment," Gaither said. "They could share the challenges that they were experiencing on campus and talk about great opportunities."

She would know. Gaither is not only an active member of the Foundation, but a product as well. The former scholar fits well for this year's conference theme -- legacy.

"I never cease to be inspired by the story of Jackie Robinson," Gaither said. "Not just in baseball, but in his life after baseball. I'm inspired by Mrs. Robinson and her commitment to this organization and to his honor. I'm inspired by the scholars; it's incredible, the number of activities they're pursuing and ways that they're investing in their communities. The alums that came before me, nurtured me and gave me the opportunity to nurture others. Every time I'm involved with the work they do, I'm inspired."

Gary Cotton is a reporter for