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Ron Brown scholar program: Doing well by doing good

Michael Mallory is president and CEO of the Ron Brown Scholar Program. (Ron Brown Scholar Fund)

As president and CEO of the Ron Brown Scholar Program, Michael Mallory tends to favor a particular kind of applicant: the intellectually gifted and socially conscious Black high school student from a low-income household.

Such a student may be unimaginable for some. But in the 25 years since the program was founded in Charlottesville, Mallory has met thousands of young people who fit that profile.

Each year, the program selects 40 to 50 scholars and gives them a $40,000 college scholarship and membership in a lifelong network of career and personal support. “We pick them because they are smart, but also because they have a lot of drive and because they know what it takes to overcome obstacles,” Mallory said. “In our program, we talk a lot about doing well to do good — doing well for yourself while doing good for others. They are the ones most likely to buy into that concept.”

But there is another reason that Mallory has been able to see the potential in poor kids that so many others too often miss. He used to be one of those kids.

Mallory, 64, had grown up in Madison County, Va., one of 10 children living in a two-room house in a rural area about 30 miles north of Charlottesville. “We didn’t have running water until I was 13,” he recalled.

His father drank too much alcohol, he said, adding, “You know what can happen after that.” But he also had an older sister, Connie, “my protector,” he called her, who encouraged him to take his education seriously.

“She was on track to become the first person in our family to go to college,” Mallory recalled. “I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I just wanted to play ball.”

Connie was killed in a car accident in 1970, just after her 18th birthday. Mallory was 15. He and Connie had argued earlier in the day. “I felt so much guilt,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Look how selfish and mean I was to her, and now she is gone.’ ”

He had no one to lean on, and his story could have ended poorly. But he began to pray, he said: “I asked for all of my sister’s finest qualities so that I could use them to honor her.”

Along with being captain of three varsity sports teams at Madison County High School, Mallory went on to become the school’s junior class president and, during his senior year, president of the student council. After graduation, he was accepted at the University of Virginia — honoring Connie by becoming the first in the family to go to college.

He eventually became an admissions officer at U-Va., and later the assistant dean for minority recruitment.

“What I saw over and over was how certain students were able to insulate and isolate,” Mallory recalled. “Those students who were poor but brilliant were especially good at it. When things got rough — and when you’re poor, things get rough a lot — they’d just zoom in on their schoolwork and block everything else out.”

The program is named for Ron Brown, who became the nation’s first Black secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration in 1993. Three years later, Brown was killed in a plane crash while on a mission in Croatia for the Commerce Department. A close friend, billionaire Anthony M. Pilaro, proposed a Ron Brown scholarship program and chose another close friend, Mike Mallory, to run it.

From homeless child to star student

Brown scholars include Carmelle Norice-Tra, who was recently appointed director of clinical research at Merck. Before that she was a medical officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.

When she was 17, her father was sentenced to 99 years in prison for a crime in which no one was hurt. They were recently reunited, after 25 years. Norice-Tra had pressed on in the meantime — receiving both an MD and PhD from Columbia, supported by her fellow Ron Brown scholars and serving on the board of the Frederick Douglass Project for Justice along the way.

The scholars program encourages students to think not only about social justice but also about creating generational wealth. However difficult the journey may have been for the alumni, the route for the next generation of scholars will be a lot smoother.

“Sometimes a student will complain about how hard schoolwork can be,” Mallory recalled. “I’ll ask, what do they think their great-great-great-grandparents were doing at their age? I tell them I don’t think they could last a day doing that kind of work. And what they need to do is go work harder at school. Now that they have the opportunity, I tell them to start creating generational wealth.”

Indeed, there are several multimillionaires among the Ron Brown alumni, and they are showing impressive willingness to give back to the program.

With generational wealth, perhaps the great-grandchildren of today’s Ron Brown scholars won’t have to work so hard, Mallory said.

But there will still be others who have to rely on grit and intellect. Hopefully there will be others like Mallory around who can recognize their talents and still do well by doing good.