WASHINGTON, D.C. – The spirit of Ron Brown filled a downtown ballroom where hundreds gathered recently to support a scholarship program that bears the name of the late U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
The auspicious occasion gave attendees a chance to see firsthand how the 16-year-old Ron Brown Scholar Program continues to be a life-changing force in the lives of select African-American youth who’ve exhibited service and leadership—two things that a host of speakers said characterized Brown’s life.
The impacted youths included past and present Ron Brown scholars—as well as 18 scholarship finalists from some 6,300 applicants nationwide—who all say the program represents the opportunity of a lifetime and serves as a second family that supports them as they make their way through college and life.
They included individuals such as Christopher Lyle, 22, a Hurricane Katrina survivor and a 2008 Ron Brown scholar who is now a senior at UNC at Chapel Hill, where he is studying business and African-American studies.
Lyle said he has gone to study abroad twice during college, once in India and once in South Africa; worked two corporate internships; and now has a job lined up at a major U.S. bank upon graduation this spring—all accomplishments and experiences he attributes to the support he got as a Ron Brown scholar.
“Being a Ron Brown scholar has allowed me to take my college experience to the next level,” Lyle said during the third annual Ronald H. Brown American Journey Awards ceremony held here on Friday.
“Beyond just the funding and opportunities, it’s been through the mentoring, just being able to connect with scholars and have that family, support network, especially being an out-of-state student,” said Lyle, who hails from Ocean Springs, Miss., a coastal city severely damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
Lyle said the hurricane floodwaters destroyed all his childhood mementos—from baby pictures to achievement certificates and an array of trophies.
Nevertheless, Lyle has persevered and excelled exceptionally well in academics, becoming the first African-American senior class president in the history of Ocean Springs High School with a 5.01 GPA.
Lyle said his own trials and travails are minimal in comparison to other Ron Brown scholars and finalists he met at the awards ceremony.
“My story doesn’t compare to some of the stories I’ve heard from some of the scholars here,” Lyle said.
Indeed, one of the more remarkable stories of resilience was that of Joelle Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Liberty High School in Brentwood, Calif., whose radiant smile and upbeat demeanor belies the tumultuous experience she had being shuffled through eight or nine foster care placements since being removed in the eighth grade from her mother, whom she said suffers from bipolar disorder.
“I’ve had to endure certain side effects of the illness,” said Williams, who arrived in D.C. as one of 18 of the 2012 Ron Brown scholarship finalists.
Still, despite the abuse and turmoil she said that rocked her childhood, Williams has been able to get accepted into Stanford University, where she plans to dual major in Spanish and a still undetermined subject. She said the sense of family espoused within the Ron Brown Scholar Program is especially important given the instability of her childhood.
“God has taken me under his wings and gotten me here,” Williams said of being able to attend the Ronald H. Brown American Journey Awards, which she described as an amazing experience.
The Ron Brown Scholar Program currently provides a total of 10, four-year $40,000 scholarships a year, but there are plans to increase funding to offer even more in the future.
By awarding scholarships to deserving youths, the program honors the life and legacy of Ron Brown, who, under President Bill Clinton, became the first African-American to serve as US secretary of commerce. Brown died in a 1996 plane crash in Eastern Europe during a trade mission.
At the awards ceremony, organizers gave the 2012 American Journey Award to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin and Anthony Pilaro, chairman of the CAP Foundation and founder of the Ron Brown Scholar Program.
Michael A. Mallory, president and executive director of the Ron Brown Scholar Program, urged attendees to donate to the program.
He said coming from a background of “free lunch and food stamps”, his life mission is to help students who come from similarly challenged backgrounds.