"This is a family," said Tasha Byers, a JRF scholar set to graduate from St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., this spring.
On Sunday, scholars were given a chance to attend panel discussions held by leading professionals from numerous fields, including business, medical and entertainment. Afterward, the Foundation presented its service awards to the four students who made the biggest impact with their community service and social enterprise activities.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation was established in 1973 by Rachel Robinson, widow of the legendary Hall of Famer and civil rights activist. Considering that Jackie is remembered as a man who broke down barriers to create opportunities for generations to follow, Rachel felt it was the best way to preserve her husband's legacy.
"We decided instead of having a building named or a street named for him, we'd start an active organization that would support the education of minority youngsters," said Robinson. "That way, they'd be able to fulfill all of their dreams and also become leaders in various communities."
Going beyond simply providing financial assistance, the Foundation equips its scholarship recipients with a comprehensive set of support services including mentoring, career guidance and practical life skills, resulting in a nearly 100 percent graduation rate, more than twice the national average for minority students.
"We believe that students need more than tuition and funds," explained Robinson. "They need a lot of support, other kinds of support. They need the help to develop their leadership potential. They need all kinds of nurturing and mentoring, and we provide that for them.
"The Networking Weekend is a core part of our support system. The scholars get to know each other, they get to know the staff, they get to know their sponsors, because they will be meeting with them over the weekend. It strengthens them in terms of their development and their wishes."
Sunday's service awards proceeded as follows:
The Nike Prize of $1,000 to a student who has used sports to advance change went to Rayshon Payton. The Oklahoma City University junior manages the First Tee initiative, an effort to teach inner-city youth the game of golf, while also providing mentoring and character education programs.
The Unilever Legacy of Leadership Award of $10,000 to a student who has devised a program or non-profit organization that has addressed an important social issue went to Charles Fyffe, a junior at University of California, Berkeley. Fyffe founded DRE (Discipline, Respect and Entrepreneurship), a program that trains African American students in business fundamentals and provides the resources and mentoring for students to start their own businesses.
The Spike Lee Youth Motivation Award of $5,000 to a student who has performed the most outstanding community service in the previous year was given to Ebenezer Asare. The Harvard University sophomore founded Step UP, a program that matches Harvard students as tutors and mentors to students in underperforming Boston Public Schools.
The Ralph Ward Award for the student with the highest cumulative GPA went to Danielle Coppock, who posted a 3.92 at Temple University.
While all participants were able to bask in the success of these four young leaders and enjoy the celebratory nature of the event, it's clear that nobody will be resting on his or her laurels anytime soon. If there's one trait that unites everybody involved with JRF, it's the belief in giving back to the Foundation and helping to advance the causes of others.
"Any one of us scholars at any given time could come back and sit on a panel, or come back and lead a workshop," said Lauryn Nwankpa, a soon-to-be graduate from the University of Chicago. "That tells you about the quality of the people within this organization."
And, of course, there is the underlying sense that there is much to be done in the advancement of equal rights.
"There are many ways for me to go forth and be a champion and to continue to push forward to break those barriers," said Byers, the daughter of a sharecropper in Mississippi. "It shows that, as a minorities, we still are able to portray excellence in every arena that we work in.
"We are making a lot of progress, depending on where you work, depending on where you attend school, but you still face obstacles and it is evident."
Perhaps when Byers and her peers meet up again in 20 or years to commemorate the accomplishments of the next generation of JRF scholars, it will also be evident just how much of a difference the Foundation has made toward erasing those obstacles.