Another legacy: College for 1,200

The Jackie Robinson Foundation also provides networking opportunities for the young scholars it supports.

Posted: April 11, 2007

As one of six kids growing up in West Oak Lane, Deirdre Littlejohn knew that if she wanted to go to college, she'd have to find a way to pay for it herself. While searching online at Central High School, she found the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

"There were all these questions on the application," the 19-year-old recalled. "What do you feel about your role in society? How can you change the world? But I really like answering essay questions."

That skill served Littlejohn well. Soon after, she was the recipient of one of the Robinson Foundation's four-year scholarships, which has kept her afloat - while working as many as three jobs - and able to attend Temple University as a marketing and communications major.

"It takes a big burden off of me in terms of paying for school," Littlejohn, now a sophomore, said by telephone. "But also, it's a big network and a big family. . . . We all talk about what we're doing. We talk about our grades. We talk about our worries."

Starting with one scholar in 1973, the year after Robinson's death, the foundation that bears his name now provides funds for 266 students at 93 colleges and universities in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Over the last three decades, more than 1,200 students, mostly African American and Latino, have attended college, with a 97 percent graduation rate.

Most of the students receive an annual $10,000 scholarship. Another 35 students receive an endowed scholarship from donors who make a onetime investment of $200,000 into a fund that generates income to support a scholar in perpetuity.

Royce Clayton, former major leaguer Mo Vaughn, and Michael and Juanita Jordan have each funded an endowed scholarship, as have the New York Mets, the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers, and Major League Baseball.

Robinson's old team, the Dodgers, is providing scholarships for 22 students this year in affiliation with the Robinson Foundation through its Dodgers Dream Foundation.

The foundation also provides money for graduate students and has an international fellowship program named for Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow and the founder of the foundation.

Students are chosen not just because of their academic record, said Della Britton Baeza, the foundation's president and chief executive officer. They also have to have displayed a commitment to community service and demonstrated significant leadership skills. Once in the program, they must write annual reports about what they're doing in the community.

"These students are saying it's cool to be smart," Baeza said. "When they go back and touch other students, they're saying, we don't care if you have your hat on backwards or if your pants are baggy. What did you get in math last term?"

Eighteen students are attending three Philadelphia colleges and universities this season with Robinson Scholarship funds - 14 at the University of Pennsylvania, three at Temple, and one at St. Joseph's.

"Having the scholarship literally changed my life," said Nassar Mufdi Ruiz, a political science and international relations major at Penn whose family left the Dominican Republic for Miami. "I don't want to be cliched, but there are definitely instances where I've stopped and cried."

This week, Ruiz is in Moscow, taking part in an international model United Nations competition. He already has a postgraduation job lined up with a Miami-based flower company that imports flowers from South America.

"It's just a really great position starting off in management," Ruiz said before boarding his flight to Russia. "Who'd have thought a 21-year-old kid would go into a management role to start off his career?"

Like the other students, Stefon Burns, a 22-year-old senior at Penn's Wharton School of business, credits the foundation's annual Networking Weekend, a four-day get-together of current and former Robinson Foundation students in New York, with providing a further avenue for reaching mentors and prospective employers.

"Honestly, it really has allowed me to grow as a person," said Burns, who will work at Morgan Stanley after graduating. "I came into college not really sure of myself and what I'm capable of doing. Meeting people from the Jackie Robinson Foundation really helped me grow in my confidence. . . . You have people there who have already gone through college, who are always coming back, who are helping you traverse some of the difficult things in college."

Inspired by meeting an entrepreneur at Networking Weekend, Littlejohn began Brown Girl Radio, an online program also heard on the Temple campus, featuring minority women artists and music "that's not derogatory toward women," Littlejohn said.

"We in society are told who we are as opposed to telling people who we are," she added.

Burns, who emceed one of the foundation's fund-raising dinners in New York last year, is not a big sports fan. But he's well aware of the impact that Jackie Robinson had on and off the field.

"I really think about the fact that although he was a great sports star, he did so much more," Burns said. "Yeah, we are great students, but what else are we doing to enhance the world? Is it mentoring, raising money? Rachel always speaks about him and how he inspires her and how he told her, 'What more can you do?' He wasn't just a baseball player."

Contact staff writer David Aldridge

at 215-854-5516 or

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