Ambassadors of Change

Past and current Ingram scholars gathered Oct. 5 to network and celebrate the program's anniversary.

Vanderbilt's Ingram scholars celebrate 15 years of making the world a better place

by Jennifer Johnston
photo by Mike Strasinger

Based on the dramatic impact they are having in their communities, it’s hard to believe there are only a hundred or so Vanderbilt Ingram scholars in the world.

“I seldom go anywhere that I don’t have someone say to me, ‘I just met the most interesting kid and she was an Ingram scholar,’” said Martha Ingram, chairman of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust and widow of the founder of the innovative program. “I know they’re out there helping make the world a better place.”

Fifteen years after its inception, Ingram says the Ingram Scholarship Program at Vanderbilt has more than exceeded the vision of longtime board chair E. Bronson Ingram: to support and encourage students who are committed to coupling a successful professional life with community service and philanthropy. Ingram died 13 years ago, two years after the scholarship was started.

Endowed in 1994, the scholarship initially was awarded to six students. The first two graduates, Michael MacHarg and Zac Willette, finished in 1996. There are now 106 alumni and 46 current scholars.

“There is no end to the ways it’s made a difference in my life,” said Willette, currently studying for a master’s in divinity at Boston College. “I came to Vanderbilt already interested in what happens in the classroom and in the community. But my perception was that those two had to be separated.

“This program made it possible to combine the two. Having significant resources to pursue my interests in the classroom and the community was a dream I had not dared to dream, but it came true,” said Willette, who majored in elementary education and service learning at Vanderbilt.

When former Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt approached Ingram with a proposal for a scholarship program, Ingram was emphatic that a community service component be added.

“My husband was interested in starting the program because he’d seen so many scholarship students who took their education and went into a cave that cut them off from the world,” Mrs. Ingram said.

“He was looking for outgoing scholars who were interested in helping their fellow man,” she said. “It has turned out even better than he envisioned. They graduate and go out and represent themselves and their families and their university well, and, in a subtle way, the Ingram family.”

MacHarg remembers the anxiety he felt when interviewing for the scholarship with E. Bronson Ingram, who as head of Ingram Industries presided over a large conglomerate.

“I remember one particular exchange that morning. Mr. Ingram asked what I thought was the most significant challenge I would face as an aspiring businessman and community servant,” said MacHarg, who sat for the interview at the end of a long oak conference table and willed himself to maintain eye contact with the imposing, no-nonsense businessman.

“I answered that my greatest concern was that there would come a time when I would have to choose between my career and my responsibilities to the community.”

MacHarg said his experiences since graduation have been wide-ranging and taught him that business acumen is necessary for social organizations to succeed. He spent time working at the World Bank focusing on the role of civil society in economic development. He helped launch the first nonprofit pharmaceutical company, OneWorld Health, which is focused on developing new medicines for neglected tropical diseases. And after he receives his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business next May, he hopes to return to the start-up environment.

“I’m looking for a small, socially minded business to help grow to scale. That’s what I so enjoyed about OneWorld Health, and I’d love to help lead another company toward lasting social impact,” MacHarg said.

“The wisdom that Bronson had was that he wasn’t trying to provide new tools,” said Jason Dinger, an Ingram scholar and 1997 graduate. “He wanted you to think about using those tools in a different way.

“He could have created a school for community service. He wanted the antithesis of that. He wanted people to develop their own individual careers but bring that toolset to the community.” Dinger, who is vice president for St. Thomas Health Services, invests the hospital’s fund capital in needy organizations.

The Ingram family’s steadfast engagement with the scholars ultimately “brings a level of accountability to the recipient,” Dinger said.

“There’s a part of you that wants to step up and tell (Mrs. Ingram) that you’re putting her investment to good use. Being able to witness their support in a very personal way is also important.”

Ingram scholar Rasheedat Fetuga, a 2000 graduate, said Mrs. Ingram is a continuing inspiration to her as a woman in business. Fetuga started her own party planning business this year, Candyland Events, after seven years of teaching in Nashville Metro schools.

“Mrs. Ingram emphasizes that it doesn’t matter on what level you serve,” Fetuga said. “So if we do something different from what she does, it doesn’t mean any less. I have visions of starting my own schools and programs or being able to send younger children into service. What if I could do a pre-Ingram scholar program for middle school or high school? She’s a big inspiration.”

“You can only do as much as you can in your little part of the world,” Ingram said. “My husband always said, ‘If you’re going to be a leader, lead in the right direction.’ We need leaders who are looking out for the best of mankind.”

Watching the Ingram scholars grow, achieve and make their mark on the world has been gratifying, she said. “Each one has to follow his own star, but it’s making for a great firmament.”

Posted 11/01/08