Mya Peterson has big plans for her future. A KU junior double majoring in business marketing and journalism, Peterson exudes confidence as she talks about career plans after graduation. A self-described sports enthusiast, she wants to start out doing video production for USA Basketball, then launch her own media production company. Peterson is already well on her way to gaining the experience, confidence and connections she’ll need to realize those dreams, thanks in part to the KU Multicultural Scholars Program.
An Impressive Track Record
Observing its 30th anniversary this year, the Multicultural Scholars Program (MSP)supports undergraduate students from diverse populations so they can achieve academic success, engage in extracurricular activities, receive mentorship, pursue leadership opportunities and create a supportive community of fellow students and alumni.
The MSP was launched in 1992 in the School of Business by Professor Emeritus Renate Mai-Dalton and was considered revolutionary for its day. Mai-Dalton was deeply invested in students’ success. Erica LeBlanc, an MSP alumna who graduated from KU in 2002 with a bachelor’s in business administration, participated in regular meetings and events led by Mai-Dalton. She recalls Mai-Dalton encouraging MSP students to sit in the front row in class, check in every few weeks and stay healthy. The professor expanded students’ worldview by taking them to the symphony and art shows. And she introduced them to successful alumni who advised them on their college and career goals.
“For most of us, she felt like a second parent,” LeBlanc said. “I remember seeing her as another person who was going to care about me and think about me holistically.”
The MSP was so successful that KU eventually expanded it to all 12 academic and professional schools. During the 2021-2022 academic year, 279 Jayhawks were multicultural scholars. According to Susan Klusmeier, MSP executive director and vice provost of academic success, the power of the program lies in creating pathways that support students from admission to graduation.
The approach is working. Students in the MSP outpace KU students as a whole, earning higher grades and graduating at higher rates. They compete for prestigious fellowships, participate in study abroad, engage in service learning and do undergraduate research — all experiential learning activities they might not know about without the program.
Faculty mentorship makes all the difference. “It takes the intentionality of a mentor to say, ‘Hey, based on what I know about you, I’m going to help you get connected with that activity or source,’” Klusmeier said. “Sometimes just having a mentor encourage a student who otherwise might be a little nervous or reluctant to get involved take that action and participate, sets up a whole new trajectory for the student they didn’t even realize was possible.”
Connections that Change Lives
Consistently, scholars point to the connections forged with fellow students, faculty and alumni as one of the most powerful aspects of the program. Peterson has seen a significant difference in her KU experience since becoming a multicultural scholar in her junior year.
“My freshman year, being a pandemic freshman on campus, it was hard to connect with people,” Peterson said. “My junior experience has been 10 times better than my first two years. Now that we have the MSP, all of us can connect with each other.”
Peterson is now an enthusiastic spokesperson for KU. “My favorite events are talking with prospective students of color, to let them know we are building a safe space here; your voice will be heard,” she said.
She lists off the alumni she has gotten to meet through the program, including collegiate athletes she admires. “When I graduate, I still have those connections,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of strong, independent Black women who are balancing work and life and chasing after their careers. Having them say, ‘Hey, go this way or that way’ has been great.”
A Strong Foundation
Multicultural scholar Jason Varghese also appreciates the connections gained through the MSP. “It reminds us that we are not alone and there are other people who face a similar situation and are doing their best to shine because of their skills and experience, not because of anything outside of their control,” he said.
A junior studying finance and accounting, Varghese is already seeing how the MSP will benefit him when he starts his career in private equity. “This program has enhanced my KU experience by giving me a greater understanding of my peers and future coworkers in the business world,” he said. “Although we all come from different backgrounds and approach problems differently, this program has shown me that building a diverse community in any organization will give us the ability to collectively rise.”
LeBlanc, executive director of New Ventures at S.C. Johnson and CEO of Oars + Alps, has applied what she learned from the MSP to her career. “Being a part of the MSP was the defining aspect of my core identity at KU,” she said. “It also was my feeling of safety and security within this big university. My time in the MSP completely shaped even my management philosophy: Whatever you choose to do, do it with excellence and show up at your best.”
LeBlanc is a member of the School of Business Dean’s Advisory Board and Marketing Advisory Board, a KU Endowment trustee and a donor to the MSP. She is excited about what it can achieve in the next 30 years. “Unfortunately, not everyone has the same advantages coming into the world,” she said. “The program helps give students access to resources that are going to help level the playing field and help them build that sense of community and confidence. You have a support group to make sure you will be able to fulfill your potential.”