Past Recipients of Ford's Minority Fellowships
Raise Money to Add to Their Numbers
By JOHN L. PULLEY
Desmonique Bonet, a doctoral candidate at American University's School of Government, addressed an annual conference of Ford Foundation fellows this fall from behind a lectern that largely obscured her from view.
The audience could relate to her situation. Like Ms. Bonet, they were scholars who are members of minority groups -- underrepresented in higher education, at times marginalized, and often difficult to see.
Since 1979, the Ford Foundation Fellowships for Minorities program has given more than 1,500 grants to minority scholars in an effort to increase their numbers.
Now some of them are giving back.
Since 1994, former fellows -- African Americans, Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Native Alaskans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Puerto Ricans -- have augmented the foundation's philanthropy, donating enough money on their own each year to sponsor one or two additional scholars.
Their philanthropy began with a group of fellows who were dismayed by assaults on affirmative-action programs in higher education. "It occurred to us, if it's so important, why aren't we doing something for ourselves?" recalled P. Bai Akridge, founder of the Ford Fellows' Fund, through which fellowship recipients sponsor subsequent fellows.
The fund is not the only fellowship program to rely on past recipients for support. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship program, for example, solicits money from former fellows, corporations, and other sources. Mr. Akridge, however, said he is unaware of any other academic-awards program in which recipients themselves have created a program to raise funds and increase their own numbers.
The Ford Foundation sponsors three categories of fellows within the minority program, including doctoral grants, which support students enrolled in Ph.D. programs, and postdoctoral grants that allow Ph.D. recipients to pursue full-time research. The money raised by the fellows themselves supports people in the third category, doctoral candidates who are writing their dissertations.
This year's dissertation fellows received $21,500 each through the fund.
"They are at the point where they can be made or broken if they don't finish the dissertation," Mr. Akridge said. "That's the hump we have to help people get over."
This year, 117 scholars were awarded Ford stipends of $14,000 to $30,000. In addition, some fellows also receive allowances for travel and research.
The foundation provides the grants in an effort "to insure that the faculties of the future in higher education are diverse and represent the many voices that have not been included, typically, in scholarship and teaching programs," said Margaret B. Wilkerson, a Ford program officer in higher education.
The number of fellows who contribute to the Ford Fellows Fund increased from 108 the first year to 139 last year, and the average contribution made by individuals rose from about $43 to almost
$59. The Ford Foundation matches whatever the fellows bring in. Mr. Akridge said he hopes to raise enough money in the future to sponsor 10 or more dissertation fellows per year.
"We contribute little by little," said Franklin W. Knight, a professor of history at the John Hopkins University, and a Ford postdoctoral fellow in the late 1980s. "I think it's catching on. While it's nice for us to have got through the gate, we need to make sure there are others coming through the gate to keep things going."
Ms. Bonet calls the grants "an academic lifeline," but adds that the camaraderie among the fellows is invaluable.
Older fellows act as mentors for younger colleagues. Scholars who are isolated within their fields share ideas with those in other disciplines. "The money is important," Ms. Bonet said, but what endures is "the community created by the Ford Foundation. It's like family."