As a child, Nadia Khan often felt she didn’t fit in. Her mother is African American, her father Indian. Her mother’s family is Christian. Khan, her siblings, and their mother are Muslim.

Her racial, ethnic, and religious identities led Khan to feel torn among several cultures. And even at horseback-riding competitions, an activity that gave her confidence and a vision for a future career as a veterinarian, she felt out of place. “I’m usually the only black person there,” Khan said. “Girls would give me their horse when they were done competing. They think I’m the help.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.”

As a college student, Khan found a support system and sense of belonging through the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which not only funded her undergraduate degree but gave her access to a rich program of mentoring, leadership development, and networking. And when she graduates this month from the University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences, she will be one step closer to becoming a large animal veterinarian and her goal of one day establishing a nonprofit educational facility where she can teach children about agriculture and offer therapeutic horseback riding.

Khan is one of 10 students who will graduate this spring in the first cohort of Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars supported by Strada Education Network. 

“JRF gives you a sense of community with people that look like you, that have similar values and morals, that come from all over the country and have completely different aspirations,” Khan said. “Our sense of community-building is empowering in how we all try to help each other: ‘I’m here for you. I support  you. I love you.’ And it feels really good to not be alone.”

Khan entered college in 2017, the same year Strada announced it would award $6.5 million to the Jackie Robinson Foundation — the largest single gift the social impact nonprofit had awarded and the largest the foundation had received since its founding in 1973. Rachel Robinson launched the foundation a year after the death of her husband, sports and social justice icon Jackie Robinson.

The program, with more than 1,500 alumni and a 98 percent graduation rate over its 48-year history, now supports 263 Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars at 118 colleges and universities nationwide. And while the scholarships — up to $30,000 over four years — provide financial support for outstanding high school students to attend the accredited four-year school of their choice, the program’s differentiator is the extensive support that surrounds the students.

That programming helps students navigate their college environments, explore career options, develop leadership skills, and embrace a commitment to service. “We’re really not a scholarship organization that has a mentoring component,” said Eric Yesline, director of prospect and program development at JRF. “We’re a mentoring organization with a scholarship component. The mentoring and hands-on learning and leadership training is such an important part of what we do.”

Those supports helped attract the attention of Strada, which wanted to not only support the students’ education, but to be part of building an exemplary program that demonstrates how to help learners complete college, build connections along the way, and start meaningful careers.

When Strada forged a relationship with the foundation, Strada Senior Vice President of Philanthropy Daryl Graham said, it was looking to answer this question: “What’s the best way for us to engage with the organization and with the scholars in a meaningful way where we actually have some impact on the outcome?”

Over the years Graham and other Strada staff have developed professional relationships with the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars, making this graduation season an exciting threshold for not just the students and their families, but for Strada, too.

“There are some special moments we’ve had to be mentors to these wonderful students and young adults who are trying to figure things out,” Graham said. “We get text messages, LinkedIn messages — for them to look at us as not just as a checkbook, but to have a connection with us as unofficial mentors — has given us a chance to see them overcome a lot of the challenges they have along the way.

“You take the financial barrier out of the way for students who really want success, and you allow them access to the right support, and it’s exciting to see what they can accomplish,” Graham continued.

In turn, the relationship has served as a model for other corporate sponsors and philanthropies, said Damian Travier, vice president of core programs. “Our relationship with Strada is completely holistic. It’s a 360-degree relationship. It’s not transactional,” Travier said. “Strada is part of our workshops, mentoring, and in-person engagement. They’re also a strong partner in sharing data and research, and that’s been an important component of how we do our programming and help our graduates move forward.”

Last year Strada announced an additional $1.2 million award to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a gift that supports a total of 42 Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars — a nod to the baseball icon’s jersey number — and allows the foundation to offer its programming nationally through a new online curriculum called JRF Impact.

The program will launch for the 2021-22 academic year, and the foundation aims to include 5,000 participants in the first year.

Khan said her experiences as a Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar helped her feel confident that she has chosen the right career path.

“I went to Tanzania through JRF. We were herding sheep and goats, and I was talking to the people there like they’re my next-door neighbors,” Khan said. “Animals give me a sense of community with people and connect us. They ground you as a person and make us remember, ‘I’m not the only thing here. I’m not the only thing that matters.’”

Earning bachelor’s degrees along with Khan in Strada’s Class of 2021 cohort of Jackie Robinson Scholars are:

  • Chloe Benson of North Charleston, South Carolina, graduating from Villanova University with majors in peace and justice studies and communication. 
  • Miles Esters of Chicago, graduating from George Washington University with a major in international affairs.
  • Langston Graham of Oakland, California, graduating from New York University with a major in environmental studies.
  • Tahj Lakey of Inglewood, California, graduating from Yale University with a major in ethnicity, race and migration.
  • Victoria Lamothe of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with majors in economics and global studies.
  • Adanze Nnyagu of Austell, Georgia, graduating from the University of Georgia with a major in psychology.
  • Marshall Strawbridge of St. Louis, graduating from Manhattan College with majors in political science and philosophy.
  • Kiarra Womack of Montgomery, Alabama, graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in psychology.
  • Terrell Worrell of Woodbridge, Virginia, graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with majors in sustainable biomaterials and residential structures.