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MLK Scholars program continues King’s legacy of service, leadership

As recipients of Emory’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship (clockwise from left), Curley Bonds, Tolton Pace and Fatima Cody Stanford strive to continue King’s legacy of leadership and service in their communities.

In 1969, three Emory faculty members — Charles Strickland, Anthony Orum and Henry Pratt — initiated an endowment to establish the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. Their intention, according to early records, was to “demonstrate Emory University’s commitment to Dr. King’s principles of non-violence, brotherhood and justice by assisting worthy students to attend Emory.” Other faculty and staff, students and alumni joined the cause, contributing to the fund through special events, payroll deduction and other avenues.

Now, more than 50 years later, the dream birthed by Strickland, Orum and Pratt has provided an Emory education to almost 200 students and impacted countless lives through them.

One of those students is Curley Bonds 87C, who works as chief medical officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health — the largest public mental health system in the U.S.

“Being part of the MLK Scholars program had many immediate benefits,” Bonds says, “but the most important was being included in a learning community of other students who took academics seriously. This truly fostered a sense of being part of an intellectual community of creative and inspirational thinkers.

“I learned that being exposed to things and people early on in one’s educational trajectory has a huge impact on one’s career and life choices,” Bonds adds. “I may not have chosen a career in academic and public sector psychiatry had I not had the early influence of participating in the Emory Scholars Program.”

Creating a foundation for success

Scholarship criteria have undergone slight changes over the years, but continue to focus on local students. MLK Scholarships are awarded to incoming first-year students to Emory College who graduate from the Atlanta Public Schools system. The Oxford MLK Scholarship is designated for incoming first-year students at Emory’s Oxford College who are Newton County residents.

“The Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship gives Emory a unique opportunity to honor King’s legacy by supporting Atlanta’s next generation of equity and justice leaders,” says Margaux Cowden, who oversees the MLK Scholarship along with the Woodruff and other premier merit scholarships in Emory College. “We are eager to build on the MLK Scholarship and expand its impact.”

Some recipients, such as Fatima Cody Stanford 00C 01MPH, set a goal for themselves to gain admission to Emory through the scholarship program.

“Our high school counselors told us about the program, and I had seen students in classes before me receive the scholarship,” Stanford says. “I was determined to do the work to get there myself.”

Stanford spent 12 weeks between her sophomore and junior years of high school conducting biochemistry research at Rollins School of Public Health’s research center through an NIH-funded research program. The experience solidified her desire to attend Emory.

“That time was so rich,” she says. “I got to know what Emory was like and realized there were so many things I could do in that space. I knew I would go to Emory if given the chance.”

She earned her chance and took full advantage of it, getting involved in as many aspects of campus life as possible — often in leadership roles.

“People were looking to see what we were doing on campus,” she says. “We were all active in our own respective spaces on campus.”

“That transition from high school to college helps define who you are and who you’ll be in the world,” she adds. “As MLK Scholars we had a mantle to carry and were expected to use it in a positive way.”

Tolton Pace 00C 02MPH agrees that being an MLK Scholar impacted every aspect of his life at Emory and beyond.

“The program provided the foundation for every success at Emory — academically, socially, spiritually and financially,” Pace says. “It gave me a network of peer and faculty mentors, offered an ease on the financial burden for my mom and provided opportunities for service-learning that developed my character, calling and commitment to the community.”

Pace was so appreciative of what the scholarship meant that he returned to Emory as assistant dean of admission and director of multicultural recruitment from 2005 to 2007.

“In that position I had the opportunity to manage the admissions process for the MLK Scholarship,” he says. “I was able to recruit students whose stories mirrored my own and facilitate the chance for more of them to access Emory and higher education.”

Continuing the legacy

Fast forward to today, and it’s easy to see that Pace, Bonds and Stanford still carry that mantle of expectations they assumed when joining Emory as an MLK Scholar.

Pace’s work as a senior program manager with the City of Atlanta includes administering federal grant funds on behalf of the city that help residents — including youth and those with significant barriers — access employment, education, training and support services so they can succeed in high-quality jobs and careers.

“While at Emory I learned that exposure, access and opportunity can make all the difference in the success of students who come from underrepresented backgrounds like myself,” Pace says. He strives to help make those opportunities possible through his work as a student pastor at a local church, facilitating enrichment activities, leadership conferences and retreats for youth.

Bonds oversees and ensures the quality of all clinical operations for Los Angeles County’s department of mental health, but is taking additional steps toward equity during the pandemic.

“The global pandemic and the attention to dismantling systemic racism have shined a bright light on economic disparities that impact health outcomes negatively for communities of color,” he says. “I’ve been part of a large team that works to improve access to care for our most vulnerable residents.”

In addition, Bonds uses his faculty appointments at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Charles R. Drew University to teach medical students, psychiatry residents and other learners about the social determinants of health and encourage them to take their role as patient advocates seriously.

Stanford also works to make a difference in the medical community, through her positions at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I learned that I had something to offer that’s unique: thought leadership,” Stanford says. “I carried that beyond my time at Emory — it’s been a theme in my career.”

Her leadership roles have ranged from serving as the first Black president of the Intersorority Council while at Emory to one of her current positions as the founding director of diversity for the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard. All along the way, she has mentored students from Harvard and other institutions — anyone who is eager to work hard and learn.

“It’s so important to mentor others,” she says. “We need to bring students along with us. I can’t go back and change atrocities, but I can make it better for those coming after me.”

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