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Investing in Diversity

The Alumni Association launches a $30 million drive for the LEAD Scholars program with the aim of expanding opportunity and increasing student diversity at U-M.
By Nick Assendelft


Read time: 5 minutes

The Alumni Association launches a $30 million drive for the LEAD Scholars program with the aim of expanding opportunity and increasing student diversity at U-M.

NINE YEARS AFTER LAUNCHING ITS LEAD SCHOLARS PROGRAM to improve diversity and opportunity, the Alumni Association is announcing a $30 million drive to expand the number of scholarships awarded to underrepresented minority students.

Citing a nearly 11 percent drop in underrepresented minority enrollment among undergraduates at the University since 2006, the Alumni Association said the money raised will allow it to offer up to 75 scholarships a year by 2021. Last year, 50 students earned scholarships of at least $5,000 a year for four years.

Ralph Johnson, MBA’92, chair of the Alumni Association’s board of directors, said the decline convinced the board “to take pretty bold action.” The board did so not only for immediate impact, but also to create something that “will live on beyond all of us.”

“We have to be very appreciative of the generations before us who have made it possible to do this,” he added, referring to donations to the Alumni Association over the years that are making the LEAD program expansion possible. “But, we also must look to generations in the future.”

The Alumni Association has committed to providing $10 million over the next 10 years to increase the number of scholarships available to African-American, Latino, and Native American students who have been accepted to the University.

At the same time, the Alumni Association will establish a $10 million endowment that will be used to match donations from outside funders, for a total of $20 million. Contributions of $50,000 or more will be matched dollar-for-dollar. The endowment will sustain the scholarship program beyond the next 10 years. Donors can give at or by calling 734.764.3777.

The LEAD Scholars Program grew out of the 2006 decision by Michigan voters to approve Proposal 2, which prohibited the University from using race as a factor in admission decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 upheld the ban as constitutional.

While University enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since 2006, the percentage of underrepresented minority enrollment has not kept pace, declining 23 percent. Undergraduate enrollment in 2006 was 24,322 and underrepresented minorities made up 13 percent of the total. In 2016, 2,600 more undergraduates attended, for a total enrollment of 26,922. However, underrepresented minorities made up just 10 percent of the total.

Since the passage of Proposal 2, the number of underrepresented minority undergraduate students attending U-M has dropped nearly 11 percent. African-American enrollment is down nearly 27 percent, from 1,709 in 2006 to 1,255 in 2016, according to the University’s Office of the Registrar. For Native Americans, enrollment fell 81 percent, from 240 in 2006 to 45 in 2016. Latino enrollment, however, has increased nearly 26 percent, from 1,190 in 2006 to 1,495 in 2016.

The Alumni Association’s board of directors set out to help reverse the overall troubling trend.

LEAD, which stands for Leadership, Excellence, Achievement, and Diversity, has “pretty quickly become something that had a real positive effect on students,” Johnson said. “That encouraged us to look for ways to increase investment in the program and make it more sustainable.”

The Alumni Association earmarked $230,000 for scholarships in 2008, the first year of the program. That number grew to $295,000 last year. Qualifying students can get up to $15,000 a year for up to four years. To date, the program has awarded scholarships to 149 African-American students, 108 Latinos, and 28 Native Americans.

Andrew Gottesman, ’92, a member of the Association’s board of directors, said using LEAD to work toward getting a critical mass of underrepresented minorities among the student population is crucial to maintaining and adding to diversity on campus, something that enriches all students’ experiences.

One reason that LEAD students do so well is the personal interest that program organizers take in each recipient. “These are young minds that need assistance in molding, shaping, and being pointed in the right direction.”

“We believe a diverse campus makes for a better university and that students can feel more engaged and comfortable when they are better represented,” he said.

One of those students is senior Ahmed Owda, who said his LEAD scholarship was vital and allowed him to attend the school he dreamed of attending from an early age. Owda, from Grand Blanc, Mich., said it was almost surreal when he learned he had been awarded a LEAD scholarship. It confirmed to him that U-M “was really the place for me,” Owda said. “It’s a feeling that people really believe in you.”

He received $5,000 a year and is the second person in his family to win a scholarship. His sister, now attending medical school at the University of Toledo, also was a LEAD scholar. The son of Sudanese-born parents, Owda said it is refreshing to see a scholarship program aimed at underrepresented students. “The Alumni Association shows the program can be impactful,” he said.

Among next year’s recipients will be the program’s first community college transfer student, thanks to a recent gift from Timothy Wadhams, ’70, MBA ’73, and his wife, Laurie Wadhams. The couple endowed multiple LEAD scholarships that will target talented students from underrepresented backgrounds, with a focus on graduates of Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School and students transferring to U-M from Washtenaw Community College.

Laurie spent two semesters at Washtenaw Community College, which “gave her a chance to demonstrate to herself that she could do the work,” Timothy said. She ultimately graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, but Washtenaw was a place for her to get a fresh start, Timothy said. “And a lot of these kids have gone on to go to schools like Harvard and Michigan.”

A LEAD Scholarship was key to helping Donovan Colquitt, ’16, realize his dream of attending U-M. “I don’t think I could’ve been able to cover the cost to attend,” he said of the scholarship. He received $5,000 a year for four years, one of a number of scholarships he pieced together to make sure he had enough financial aid to attend college.

Colquitt, of Southfield, Mich., said that besides the money he received, the LEAD Scholars program also gave him access to a number of key people through support, networking events, and professional development.

An early hallmark of the scholarship program is its success in making sure students stay in school and graduate on time. LEAD scholars on all three of U-M’s campuses have a 97 percent graduation rate within six years, said Ayanna McConnell, senior director of university relations and student engagement at the Alumni Association. By contrast, only 84 percent of all U-M underrepresented students graduate within six years, according to the University’s public affairs office, citing 2010 figures.

One reason that LEAD students do so well is the personal interest that program organizers take in each recipient. “These are young minds that need assistance in molding, shaping, and being pointed in the right direction,” said Phyllis Taylor, lead coordinator for the LEAD Scholars program and student recruiting, who mentors program participants.

Students must attend at least two LEAD events per semester, such as social programs, workshops to hone skills, and networking events like dinners and visits that build connections with alumni.

For senior Rachel Sullivan, the LEAD scholarship has been very helpful as she pursues her studies in movement science in the School of Kinesiology. “It feels like a huge blessing and I’m graduating debt-free,” said Sullivan, a senior from Port Huron, Mich. “It allowed me to be more free to choose graduate programs without thinking of debt as much.”

Sullivan called the LEAD program and the Alumni Association “hugely helpful” by also providing her with a job on campus and exposing her to different experiences.

“Everyone’s coming from interesting backgrounds, majors, and grade levels,” she said, adding that being a LEAD scholar was “very rewarding, but very challenging.”

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