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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
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Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program restructured amid push back from students

Students raise questions as AU’s most prestigious scholarship faces new

American University’s most competitive scholarship, the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program, is set to change in the fall of 2024. Scholars within the current program will continue to receive a full ride to AU, but future cohorts will see a restructured program, without the full-ride scholarship.

Some FDDS students have recounted racist incidents they faced within the broader Honors Program, while saying that FDDS was a safe place to escape the larger issues within the Honors Program and the University.

FDDS, an all-inclusive scholarship targeted mostly at Black and brown students, is awarded when a student is applying to the University. The program was created to give students who are historically underrepresented in higher education a dedicated space within the larger Honors Program to grow and learn — with the added bonus of a full-ride, including tuition, housing, dining and other costs associated with attending the University.  

On an April group call, Program Director Wim Taylor told FDDS students the program would begin to undergo substantial changes. These changes, as the students would later find out, included how students apply to the program, the number of scholars accepted into the program and the full-ride nature of the program.

What happened to the program?

This is not the first time this program has been restructured. What started as the Frederick Douglass Scholars, the program previously focused specifically on D.C. residents. Later, the program expanded to include the rest of the country and became FDDS. 

Tamir Harper, an FDDS and alumnus who graduated in 2022, explained the switch from the previous program was meant to better serve the wants of students admitted into the program in expanding their professional opportunities outside of AU, while also bettering access to FDDS. 

Harper said that “distinguished” was added to the title of the program to recognize “students who have went through academic rigor and bring a different perspective to the institution.” 

The 2026 graduating class of FDDS scholars will be the last to graduate within the FDDS program as AU attempts to broaden the funds previously reserved for FDDS. Now, as the current iteration of FDDS comes to an end, a new program is set to replace it, all while attempting to maintain the same spirit of FDDS. 

Differences in the programs begin with the application process. Instead of applying for the program while applying to AU, students will apply for the new program at the end of their first year at the University. This means that part of the financial incentive to attend AU for the full-ride program is gone. The program will offer a scholarship for a significant portion of tuition in a student’s final three years. However, Taylor said the lack of scholarship in the first year of attendance at the University might deter students from applying.

The number of students accepted into a cohort, the entering class of students in the FDDS program, will also change from five students per year to 20 students, with 60 students total in the program, down from 20 total.

Taylor cited the working group of FDDS students as the main reason for these changes. However, students like Ekua Hudson, an FDDS scholar and a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, were told conflicting information about what the new program would look like by Taylor.

Hudson was told by the University that they would compare FDDS to other full-ride programs at different colleges, and restructure based on those programs. This led her to believe that the full-ride nature of the program would remain intact.

Taylor said she is hopeful for the future of the new program and thinks that the changes will end up benefiting the wider AU community.

“The funds that had previously been allocated to the FDDS scholarship will go back into the [financial aid] pool and then they’re redistributed across students with demonstrated need,” Taylor said. 

Taylor said that there was “no guarantee” that the money previously allocated to FDDS would be given to Black and brown students in the future.

Students have expressed mixed feelings about the new structuring of FDDS. Ty Burrell, an FDDS sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said he recognizes that giving more money to more students sounds like a good idea. Burrell also identified a larger issue in the new model. 

“The students who need the need-based aid aren’t going to choose AU if they don’t get the need-based aid their first year,” Burrell said. “It’s essentially a gamble and that’s a risky financial gamble, especially to students who really need the need-based aid.” 

Harper also questioned whether this is the best way to restructure the program. 

“If they have a drive for diversity and inclusion, they have to put their money where their mouth is and add money to FDDS,” Harper said. “Don’t say we’re going to put the money in a bigger pot for anyone; say we’re going to put in more money and there are going to be 20 students in the [current] FDDS program.”

Alexandra Drakeford, an FDDS senior in SPA, said she sees the entire restructuring as an imposition. 

“Honestly, I think that it will kind of be a setback in achieving a more equitable campus,” Drakeford said. “It’s going to be a setback in attracting talented students that just need a chance.” 

Issues in the current program

In addition to concerns about the program’s restructuring, numerous FDDS scholars said they have dealt with ongoing issues in the larger Honors Program. According to Harper and Drakeford, there have been instances of racism from white honors students directed toward Black and brown students within FDDS.

“A lot of us had a joke that every semester we would wait for the next racist thing to happen,” Harper said. “If it wasn’t for our [cohort], I probably would not have been able to have the mental capacity to overcome all the racism that took place at [the University].” 

Harper went on to explain that he was questioned by white honors students on the validity of his attendance at AU, his worthiness of a full-ride scholarship and his intelligence.

“Many people might just see those as questions, but they are layered within a community that continues to uphold, and oftentimes, support white supremacy,” Harper said.

Harper isn’t alone in his experiences of racist misconduct within the larger Honors Program.

Drakeford said she is also frequently questioned about her admission to AU. She said jealousy from white students towards FDDS students is the main reason for their comments.

University officials said they were not aware of any instances of racism within the Honors Program. They encourage any student who has experienced discrimination or harassment to reach out to the Office of Equity and Title IX at equityoffice@american.edu or by phone at 202-885-8080. 

“AU works to create inclusive learning environments for all students, both inside and outside of the classroom, and takes concerns of racism very seriously,” said Elizabeth Deal, assistant vice president for community and internal communication, in a statement to The Eagle.  

What are students asking for?

Harper and other students within the FDDS program said they are apprehensive about the new program, especially on the heels of affirmative action being overturned, and believe it further limits opportunities for students of color. Harper also said he is unsure how these changes promote the University’s long-term Inclusive Excellence program.

“You’re saying at the same breath, ‘Oh, we believe in affirmative action, we have Inclusive Excellence,’ but we’re going to stop a program that’s servicing primarily Black and brown children,” he said. “I think there’s a correlation regardless of if it was indirect or direct.” 

Harper and other FDDS students said they want to see AU administrators put more emphasis on admitting Black and brown students, and other students of color, rather than only talking about diversification through inclusive excellence. 

"[The University is] stopping AU from achieving more diverse brilliant scholars as they abolish FDDS,” Harper said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Douglass's last name as Douglas. The article has since been updated to reflect the correct spelling.

This article was edited by Walker Whalen, Zoe Bell, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks and Isabelle Kravis.

investigations@theeagleonline.com


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