In 2009, Louisville’s James Graham Brown Foundation launched a major scholarship program to help outstanding students from across the country study in Kentucky. It hoped that by providing exceptional students with extraordinary resources, the students would develop the vision, compassion, and leadership skills necessary to improve their communities. And if the fellowship and its recipients could also bring positive national attention to the commonwealth, so much the better.
After five years of graduating classes, the fellowship seems to be meeting its idealistic goals.
Cole Steber ’13 was in the first class of Brown Fellows. A recent medical school graduate, he is now doing a one-year internship at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Georgia before starting a four-year radiation oncology program in North Carolina at Wake Forest.
“I learned to be passionate about continuing to be a scholar after college and to keep searching and reading about many of life’s great mysteries,” he says of his Brown experience. He continues to seek ways to be “engaging as a leader,” whether in the workplace or in his communities, “and to make a positive impact on others by doing so.”
More recent graduates are grateful for the personal growth the fellowship inspires.
“Having a whole year to plan eight weeks of ‘enrichment’ and then actually executing those plans brought me closer to myself than anything else in college,” says Jun Hee “Daniel” Lee ’17. “How do I want to spend my time? What can I sacrifice and what can I not? These are questions that inevitably came up.”
A behavioral neuroscience major from Seoul, South Korea, he is currently serving his two-year military obligation before graduate school.
Mason Paas ’17, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, says simply: “The Brown experience whipped me into a better version of the person I was.”
The James Graham Brown Foundation is the largest private foundation in the state. For partners in their remarkable educational venture, the foundation turned to Centre College and the University of Louisville, the two Kentucky schools it believed “had the capacity to operate such a program with the highest chance of success,” explains Brown CEO and longtime president Mason Rummel.
In addition to top grades, Brown Fellows must demonstrate drive, leadership, and a commitment to the common good. In return, the fellowship not only covers all the usual college costs for four years, it also provides faculty mentors, individual summer enrichment projects, international travel, leadership training, and field trips throughout the commonwealth. Ten students per school are named each year.
Stephanie Fabritius, vice president for academic affairs and mentor to the first class, is convinced that having the Brown Fellows Program helps Centre attract the attention of students who might not otherwise consider applying. Once here, they contribute significantly to the wider campus.
“Brown Fellows are involved in classroom discourse, in organizations, and in leadership positions,” she says. “They are engaged, involved learners. And that is contagious.”
John Kinkade ’95, who has taught Brown Fellows in his English and humanities classes, was recently named the Brown Fellow Program coordinator at Centre. He agrees with Fabritius’s assessment of the program’s benefit to Centre.
“The program brings students to campus who help improve our overall intellectual and academic climate,” he says. “They are engaged and curious, and the questions they ask in class or the contributions they make in class can move a conversation to another level.”
Centre’s 10 in the Class of 2017 did well in academics and leadership reports sociologist and five-year Brown mentor Beau Weston. Their summer enrichment projects—a hallmark of the Brown program—took them to study biofeedback in Arizona, sustainability in Mexico, photojournalism in South Africa, and medicine in Madagascar, among many other places.
At a graduation lunch, Weston said, “They have been a delight to work with, hilarious to hold meetings with, and they fill me with pride at their achievements.”
Many of the Brown Fellows in the Class of 2017 especially value the close relationships they developed with their Centre cohort over four years of regular group meetings and other activities.
“When I faced challenges, hit dead ends, and fell short, they were there to pick me up,” says men’s valedictorian Harrison Kirby ’17.
Another benefit, he notes: “The Brown Fellows never let me be the smartest person in the room.”
Kirby is now looking at ways to tackle poverty with the Greater Louisville Project through AmeriCorps VISTA.
To foster camaraderie, the Brown Fellows from Centre and UofL participate in a number of joint activities. The program begins even before their first classes with two weeks of leadership training and community service, followed the next summer by two weeks abroad (currently to Strasbourg, France). The most recent addition to the program’s curriculum takes the Brown Fellows to various regions throughout the state over their four years.
“Mr. Brown wanted all citizens to be proud of his adopted state,” says Rummel. “Regardless of where fellows choose to live [after graduation], by virtue of their training in Kentucky, they are ambassadors for the state.”
Lola Fakunle ’17 has appreciated the many voyages of discovery her fellowship has offered her. A behavioral neuroscience major whose Nigerian parents settled in Louisville, she now lives in Atlanta as a first-year medical student at Emory University.
“I met all kinds of people on the traveling experiences that the BFP has afforded me: Paducah, Ky. . . . Kerala, India . . . Paris, France . . . Mesa, Ariz.,” she says. “The BFP program has done this wonderfully paradoxical thing that has made me feel like a true Kentuckian for the first time but also a global citizen for the first time, as well.”
Bryce Rowland ’17 acknowledges the Brown expectation that the fellows will use their summer enrichment projects unselfishly and to dream big.
“Our wildest ideas can come to reality because the Brown has provided us with excellent mentorship and a plethora of resources,” he says. “It has been remarkable to watch my cohort use these vast resources in ways that address important problems facing our society instead of using them for self-benefit.”
Rowland spent one of his enrichment summers on Montserrat, a Caribbean island nearly destroyed by a volcano 20 years ago. He was part of a team of Harvard graduate students looking at the political disconnect between immediate humanitarian relief and long-term resettlement planning. He is now in a Ph.D. biostatistics program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and hoping to use statistics to study health inequalities related to class and race.
After the 2006 death of longtime Brown Foundation board chair and president Joe Rodes ’53, the foundation lost its last direct contact with James Graham Brown himself. Rodes had been Brown’s investment advisor for many years prior to joining the foundation. Prompted by its new circumstances, the Brown board developed its first strategic plan and decided to come up with projects of its own, in addition to funding outside requests.
In order to have maximum impact on Kentucky, its first initiative would be in higher education, recalls Richard Trollinger, Centre’s vice president for college relations at the time. His doctoral dissertation on philanthropy had looked at the impact of the Morehead Scholars program (now Morehead-Cain) on the University of North Carolina and, more broadly, on the state. The Morehead program, based on the Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford in England, was established in 1951 as the first merit-based college scholarship in the United States. Morehead in turn became a model for the Brown Foundation as it began to develop its own major fellowship.
“While there is no doubt in my mind that the Brown Foundation’s directors would have chosen Centre as their private college partner in establishing a premier scholarship program in Kentucky whether or not I was familiar with the Morehead Scholarship, being able to talk knowledgeably about how that program operates and its impact on North Carolina (where I was born) was an advantage, I think,” says Trollinger. “It did not hurt that Alex Rankin, who had replaced Rodes as foundation chair, was a UNC graduate and was familiar with the Morehead-Cain Scholars.”
About this time, Centre’s own strategic planning had envisioned a “marquee” scholarship program. The College had been playing with the idea of competitive merit scholarships to recruit top students nationally since at least 1982, when its first iteration of the Trustee Scholars Program began. But the Trustee Scholars had never been well-funded and by the 2000s they were no longer much of an inducement.
Then came the Brown Fellows, one of the nation’s top fellowship programs. High school students—and their advisors—took notice.
Sara Loy ’15, who has just begun a Ph.D. program in Victorian literature at Indiana University, calls being a Brown Fellow one of the highlights of her time at Centre. “The program exposed me to opportunities (and people) I didn’t even know to look for,” she says.
She also appreciates the Brown alumni connections. Her communications job in the Louisville Free Public Library before graduate school came about as a direct result of her Brown affiliation. “I think that the growing network of alumni will be a force for good as we continue to gain influence in our communities,” she adds.
As vice president of the Brown Fellows Alumni Association, Annie Roessler ’13 agrees that the Brown alumni feel a tight bond, in part because they feel such gratitude for the opportunities it brought them.
“It was critical to my success after Centre,” says Roessler, a Ph.D. student in pharmacology at Loyola University Chicago.
After she spent a Brown-supported summer in a lab investigating cardiovascular disease, the head of the team recruited her to Loyola and to his lab. Her research focuses on the interaction between the nervous system and the cardiovascular system during a heart attack.
“We have a strong presentation and publication record together, and we are building a device to reduce heart muscle cell death after a heart attack,” she says. “The Brown Fellowship was life-altering for me.”
Other members of that first class also appreciate the Brown’s influence, no matter their field.
Katie Smalley ’13, now a lawyer at Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville, says that learning to plan and manage large, long-term projects—“such as brainstorming and implementing summer enrichment projects”—are skills she uses every day. “In addition, finding ways to take my particular knowledge and translate that for others was something that I was able to develop through the Brown Fellows program,” she says.
Bethany Carson ’13 majored in government and Spanish at Centre, honing her interests in diversity and human rights. After teaching English in Costa Rica and participating in a fellowship in Denmark through Humanity in Action, she returned home to Texas and became involved with immigration issues. For the last two and a half years, she has been working to end immigrant incarceration, detention, and deportation as a researcher and organizer with Grassroots Leadership.
“The Brown Fellowship is rooted in a responsibility both to Kentucky and to be a global member of society,” says Carson, who spent three summers abroad thanks to Brown. “The lens of contributing to your own local community while approaching that work with an internationally informed lens is something that has remained with me.”
Above: The fifth class of Brown Fellows: (top row, from left) Chad Carter ’17, Bryce Rowland ’17, Harrison Kirby ’17; (middle row) Grace Anastasia ’17, Lola Fakunle, Mason Paas ’17; (bottom row) Charlotte Sackett ’17, Sarah Fall ’17, Imogene Robinson ’17 and Daniel Lee ’17
by Diane Johnson