The 2009 dinner was hosted by Bill Cosby at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan on Monday night. Along with celebrating the accomplishments of this year's graduating class, the dinner served to honor three distinguished recipients of the JRF's annual awards: actor Robert Redford, TV personality Robin Roberts and neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson Sr.
For the scholars, the night offers a glimpse into the future that awaits them with the application of the lessons and values they've learned over the past few years.
"It is fabulous," said Lauryn Nwankpa, a senior at the University of Chicago. "Being in that space with so many important people, and not only the people that are famous, but people in the Foundation you know are going to do such great things later on, and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm sitting next to them in this room with Bill Cosby,' and it's such an amazing feeling."
"It's inspirational," said Rachel Robinson, widow of the baseball icon and JRF founder. "They're all beautifully dressed, and they sit at the tables with their sponsors, so they feel like grownups, not like kids anymore. They're really stepping into the adult role and performing that way."
Established in 1973, the JRF is the nation's premier education and leadership development program. Transcending financial assistance, the foundation equips its scholarship recipients with a comprehensive set of support services including mentoring, career guidance and practical life skills.
The JRF has unquestionably been a success. The Foundation didn't receive its first grant until 1977, when Chesebrough-Pond's USA, Inc. donated money for two scholarships. Currently, JRF is providing scholarship assistance and program support to 279 students representing 34 states and enrolled in 106 different colleges and universities across the country. A whopping 98 percent of scholars have graduated, more than twice the national average for minority students.
And when it comes to success, few have reached the heights of their respective fields as the night's honorees.
The 2009 ROBIE Humanitarian Award was presented to Redford, who has helped open countless doors for creation and expression among young artists thanks to the work of his Sundance Institute.
The award-winning actor and director recalled witnessing the ugliness of segregation while growing up in a working class neighborhood of Los Angeles, and how he learned the importance of simply attempting to make some kind of difference in people's lives.
Redford said he was about 10 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier, in 1947.
"I remember reading about that," Redford said, "reading all the publicity and all the headlines and seeing how one man made such a difference."
The 2009 ROBIE Achievement in Industry Award was given to Roberts, a former board member of the JRF. Showcasing the class and humility that has made her a popular host of ABC's "Good Morning America," Roberts joked about how she'll still remember the thrill of the night's events when she's in an old-age home and being spoon-fed Jell-O.
Roberts also discussed the importance her family had in shaping her life.
"My parents didn't teach us the Three R's," Roberts said. "They tought us the Three D's: Discipline, Determination and Da Lord."
The 2009 ROBIE Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Carson, professor and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University. Carson may not generally be as well known as Redford and Roberts, but he is a giant in his field. He performed the first operation in which twins, conjoined at the head, were separated, and he holds more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees.
Carson took the time to thank the pioneers who helped pave his path to success, including Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, the former Brooklyn Dodgers infielder who once proved that a black man could not only hold his own in the Major Leagues, but dominate the competition.
"Jackie had the kind of personality that allowed him to take tremendous abuse and not react to it," said Carson. "He still found within himself the courage and the ability to achieve at the highest possible levels."