Opportunities often start with a series of connections, or maybe a chance meeting. And so it was that a September professional conference in Houston led to a dinner meeting in Minneapolis, which led to an introduction, which led to an invitation to represent St. Thomas in a resource fair for the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s annual Leadership Conference in New York

The Jackie Robinson Scholarship program has a 40-year history and 1,400 alumni Scholars. The mission of the Foundation is to provide a combination of financial and programmatic support as well as leadership development opportunities for students of color with strong capabilities but limited financial resources. The 200 JRF Scholars receive a $6,000 annual scholarship for four years; as well as a stipend and travel expenses for participation in the JRF mentoring and Leadership Development program, which includes the annual Leadership Conference in New York.

My introduction to the JRF turned up some very interesting findings. The program boasts a graduation rate close to 99%, no doubt a function of the combination of a selective scholarship award protocol and the development and support JRF Scholars receive during the course of their college career. It turns out that there is already a connection between the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship and St. Thomas. A little research turned the fact that not one but two JRF Scholarship winners are Tommies.

Tasha Byers ’09 studied political science and Spanish. Excel! program director Cynthia Fraction supervised Byers when she was a student worker in the McNair program office, and recalls that she was “an academically outstanding woman from North High School in North Minneapolis.” After graduation Byers went on to the London School of Economics, where she completed a master of science in comparative politics.

Returning to the Twin Cities, Byers worked as an analyst for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, where she was a part of the team that created workforce development and participation goals for minorities and women in the $1 billion Vikings Stadium project. Byers now works in the Philadelphia area for a small non-profit organization dedicated to creating summer immersion experiences that promote cultural awareness and cross-cultural understanding between African American and Jewish high school students.

Ashley Bailey ’12 is described as “brilliant,” and “an exceptional student” by David Todd Lawrence, a professor of English who taught her in her first year at St. Thomas. Among several noteworthy accolades, Bailey was recognized by the Minnesota League of Women Voters as a 2011 Leader of Today and Tomorrow Fellow. After graduating, Bailey entered the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. She was appointed to Wisconsin Law Review in 2013, and will be a member of the Law Review senior editorial board beginning in the fall of 2014.

JRF Scholars Tasha Byers and Ashley Bailey in 2009. (Photo by Mike Ekern.)

JRF Scholars Tasha Byers and Ashley Bailey in 2009. (Photo by Mike Ekern.)

Attracting exceptional young high school students and providing them with an educational foundation that supports their future achievement is something that St. Thomas does an excellent job of today. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot benefit from stronger relationships with powerful proven educational programs like the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship. Our academic community is strengthened by top talent—talent that represents the best in the world, and that is committed to advancing the common good.

We celebrate the success of these accomplished young scholars and change agents and take pride in their Tommie roots. For our part, we commit to actively seeking out opportunities for partnerships that will allow us to continue to expand our reach and make a St. Thomas education attainable to more students from a wider variety of backgrounds.