4/11/2017 Kevin Burke

Trustee Gift Establishes Program Focusing on High-Achieving Students Who Have Overcome Obstacles

Does striving to excel while facing significant challenges such as poverty, disability, discrimination, and illness equip people with attributes like grit, persistence, and a higher emotional quotient (EQ) that can enhance success in school, work and business?

In a period of increased professional, technological and industrial disruption, resilience and the ability to rebound and reinvent are indispensable. Might those forced to rebound early in life be uniquely equipped to succeed in this disruptive era? And can the rest of us learn how to adapt and persevere from those with real life experience?     

Since the decision by the Franklin & Marshall College Board of Trustees in 2008 to increase F&M's investment in need-based aid, recruiting broader pools of high-achieving students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the proportion of incoming students eligible for Pell Grants — most of them also the first in their families to go to college — has risen from 5 percent for the Class of 2012 to 19 percent for the Class of 2020. Geographic and ethnic diversity in the student body has increased substantially as well, leading The Washington Post to hail the College's efforts as a "recruiting revolution" and PBS' The News Hour to highlight F&M as a national model "that more colleges need to follow."

At F&M, the classroom and postgraduate success of this growing cohort of first-generation students from lower-income families demonstrates the power that can be derived from overcoming obstacles. And now, with the generous $1 million dollar commitment of alumnus and Trustee Ken Mehlman '88, the College is embarking on a new project to deepen its understanding of students' abilities to translate perseverance, optimism, and a passion for learning into high academic achievement and lifetime success.

The Mehlman Talent Initiative at F&M is designed to identify teaching and mentoring techniques and approaches that can help those students empowered by having prevailed over challenging life circumstances continue to thrive in and beyond college. Long term, the College will also share knowledge gained through the initiative across all of F&M's academic and other programs, as well as with higher education media, research journals and symposia.

  • Franklin & Marshall College Trustee Ken Mehlman '88 speaks with F&M students and President Daniel R. Porterfield, right, during a luncheon in Druker Humanities Common in October 2016. Image Credit: Nick Gould

"As a Trustee, Ken Mehlman has been deeply involved in our collective decision-making to pursue an expanded financial aid strategy for talented students that has reshaped the College dramatically in the past decade, making an F&M education available to many more first-generation, lower- and middle-income students from all across the country," said President Daniel R. Porterfield. "With this tremendous gift -- half of which is dedicated to financial aid -- he further enables the College to cultivate the greatness of high-achieving students so that they will be empowered to achieve big goals in their lives and make disproportionately positive contributions to society. The Mehlman Talent Initiative will continue to make F&M a stronger school and help us create an even stronger community, and we are immensely appreciative of Ken's support."

Mehlman's gift will also be used to focus on establishing a specially trained cadre of student, faculty and professional staff mentors who will support the academic success and social integration of 10 high-striving/low-income freshmen each fall for the four academic years beginning in 2017. Professor of Psychology Michael Penn will serve as the inaugural faculty mentor for the selected scholars.  In addition, a lecture and workshop series will be established bringing prominent thought leaders to F&M for seminars focused on the theme of "beating the odds for breakthrough success."

"At a time of increased global competition, accelerating technological evolution and rapidly shifting business, political and social environments, resilience and the ability to rebound and reinvent are critical. Young men and women who have already overcome adversity bring different life experiences and are well positioned for 21st century success, but they need practical tools to flourish. This initiative will support these students and provide a framework for the rest of us to learn from them," said Mehlman, who went on from F&M to earn his law degree from Harvard and serve in a number of high-level positions in Washington, D.C. He was the campaign manager for President George W. Bush's successful bid for re-election in 2004, stepping up from his previous role as director of the White House Office of Political Affairs, and later served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is currently a Member at the global investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. in New York City.

The announcement of Mehlman's gift to his alma mater is the first step in a larger initiative Mehlman is launching, The Slingshot Project.org. Named for the primitive tool that David, a simple shepherd, used to slay the giant Goliath, the Slingshot Project will identify and partner with organizations focused on teaching those who have overcome difficult challenges how to identify and benefit from the coping and adapting mechanisms they developed in facing these challenges. 

  • Image Credit: Eric Froberger
"Young men and women who have already overcome adversity bring different life experiences and are well positioned for 21st century success, but they need practical tools to flourish. This initiative will support these students and provide a framework for the rest of us to learn from them."
—Ken Mehlman '88, F&M Trustee
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