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Umstead honored with inaugural Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award

MaKendra Umstead (center), a PhD student in cancer biology, has been awarded the first Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award. She is pictured here with (from left to right) Jamal Fulton, Kharen Fulton's son; Laney Dean Lisa Tedesco; Laney alumni Kai Jackson Issa and Donna Akiba Harper; and Damon Williams, director of diversity, community and recruitment.

MaKendra Umstead, a Laney Graduate School student in the cancer biology doctoral program, has been awarded the first Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award.

Named to honor the legacy of Fulton, the longtime director of recruitment, diversity and admissions at the Laney Graduate School, the award supports graduate student diversity, inclusion and community. Umstead was presented the award at the annual Laney Graduate School Diversity Reception. A monetary prize accompanied the award.

Umstead says the award came as a complete surprise. “I found out that I received the Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award on the same day that I passed my private dissertation defense," she says.

"In complete honesty, I was more excited to be presented with such an honor as the Kharen Fulton Award than I was about defending," Umstead continues. "The reality is that while I spent the last five years toiling through graduate school to earn my degree, Kharen Fulton dedicated her entire career to ensuring that I would have that opportunity.”

Fulton’s service to Emory was distinguished and long, stretching more than 30 years.

“Kharen was a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion," says Laney Dean Lisa Tedesco. "She strived to make the Laney Graduate School — and Emory — a more welcoming, just and supportive place for people from underrepresented groups, including both students and staff. We are proud to carry on the good work she so deeply believed in here in the Laney Graduate School.”

Umstead agrees. “When interacting with Kharen through many avenues such as student orientation, minority receptions or the Black Graduate Student Association, she always embodied a joy, a confidence and a motherly care that was both encouraging and inspiring for young minority students like me," she recalls. "In a world where progress in diversity seemingly takes two steps back whenever we take one step forward, rare individuals like Kharen deserve our utmost praise and respect.”

The award was established through the efforts of several Laney alumni whose lives Fulton touched. In their call for support for the award, alumni Kai Jackson Issa 99G and Donna Akiba Harper 85G 88G noted Fulton’s place in their graduate careers and lives.

“She understood the unique challenges that many faced as first-generation and underrepresented minority doctoral students entering academic and research fields where there were few people who looked like us. She believed that our voices and scholarship had important contributions to make in the world and reminded us of that often," they explain.

For Umstead, honoring Fulton’s legacy is a call to action.

“Through her life, she established a legacy that transcends institutions, generations and disciplines," she says. "To me, receiving this award is not solely an accolade, but it is a charge to continue on in this very important work, committing to increasing access and breaking down barriers for underrepresented individuals throughout my career. Truly, I am honored.”

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