Periodically, we will feature a Q&A with a member of the JRF "family" we think you should know. This week's spotlight is on Kendra Gaither . A Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar from 1992 to 1996, Kendra currently serves as Chair of the JRF Mid-Atlantic Regional Scholar Advisory Committee. She is also a lifetime member of the JRF Alumni Association. Kendra began her career in international affairs at the U.S. Department of State where she spent more than 10 years as a career diplomat, specializing in international economic and trade issues in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. A term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a recipient of the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Kendra is currently the Executive Director of the Center for International Policy & Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.
Q: As a high school senior, do you remember what first attracted you to the Jackie Robinson Foundation?
A: I was fortunate to have two guidance counselors in my life who introduced me to the Jackie Robinson Foundation – Marion Johns, the counselor at my high school who worked with minority students interested in STEM careers; and my mother, Norma Gaither, who was then a Guidance Counselor in a neighboring county. I remember being amazed that it was a four year program when most of the other scholarships were not as comprehensive. I was encouraged to apply, but never in a million years did I think I would be selected by this prestigious national scholarship!
Q: What was your most memorable experience as a Jackie Robinson Scholar?
A: It is hard to single out one memorable experience, but if I were to describe what is most meaningful to me about my time as a Jackie Robinson Scholar, I would say it is the people. There was always a strong sense of family. It permeated the atmosphere of my very first Networking Weekend,(now Mentoring and Leadership Conference), and remains one of the most important reasons why my experience as a scholar is so special to me still. Just after transitioning to the alumni ranks, I did have one experience in particular that stood out to me. As a recent graduate, in 1997, fellow former scholar and dear friend, Reggie Livingston, and I had the honor of speaking at the annual dinner. That I was selected to speak about my experience as a scholar at the dinner, and to briefly share the stage with Bill Cosby, was a singular experience.
Q: What makes the Jackie Robinson Foundation stand out?
A: It stands alone in my mind, and I believe the almost 100% graduation rate belies that fact. There are a number of institutions that financially support students, and those that also seek to support a student’s professional development. To me, no other organization is as committed to each individual scholar and his or her development as a whole person throughout their college career to the same extent and with the depth of support as JRF. This is also why I continue to work on behalf of JRF, since I know having the resources to provide the kind of assistance it does is crucial.
Q: How has JRF impacted your life?
A: JRF has impacted my life in so many ways. As a Jackie Robinson Scholar, I was able to earn my college degree and pursue my dreams without being a financial burden to my family. I was exposed to professionals in my field who were invested in my professional development and success. I formed lifelong friendships and joined a community of peers who are inspiring and supportive to this day. As an alumna and a volunteer, I have had the incredible honor to represent JRF and contribute to perpetuating Jackie Robinson’s legacy through the work of the Foundation. The biggest impact, however, is the opportunity that I have to create a similar experience for new scholars as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Scholar Advisory Committee. The opportunity to give back to the Foundation and to support each new class of scholars as they chart their own course is the most rewarding and fulfilling.
Q: Why do you choose to remain active in the Foundation?
A: Simply put, I stay involved in the life of the Foundation because I am invested in its mission and JRF's success is important to me. There was a period of time when I was serving overseas with the State Department when I was not involved. After returning to the U.S., I reconnected with the Foundation and volunteered in support of the Alumni Association Conference in Washington, DC. It reaffirmed for me how much I valued the personal connections and lifelong friendships I made through JRF. I am especially cognizant of this in the Foundation’s 40th anniversary year, which coincides for me personally, as I celebrate my 20th year as part of the Jackie Robinson Foundation family. I want to see this organization that has given so much to me, continue to thrive and provide students with the rich experiences I was afforded. And as the Scholar Advisory Chair, it is incredibly rewarding to play a part in providing personal development opportunities and financial support for young people to achieve their dreams.
Q: As the Chair for JRF’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Scholar Advisory Committee, you have reviewed hundreds of applications. How would you compare this year’s applicant pool to previous years?
A: Each year I am amazed at how many candidates are worthy of serious consideration. I know if I were a candidate today, there is no way I could measure up to the accomplishments and contributions that young people are making to their communities! Every application we read contradicts the popular notion that today’s youth are somehow lacking in academic achievement, motivation, or a commitment to the world around them. There are always far more students worthy of consideration and investment than there are funds to support them and I would describe that as one of the most difficult aspects of our work.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: Thank you seems wholly inadequate, but I would like to sincerely thank Mrs. Robinson and the Robinson family, the JRF staff members past and present, fellow alumni, and scholars who have all contributed to making my time as a scholar, alum, and volunteer with the Jackie Robinson Foundation so special. My life has been immeasurably enriched as part of this family.