The Lincoln Foundation has been serving talented, underserved students in the Louisville Metro area for more than 110 years, helping them overcome barriers to higher education and achieve their potential.
Written by Tabnie Dozier | Photographed by Bill Wine
There’s a program in Kentuckiana that’s going beyond the school walls to make sure that aspiring college students are equipped with the tools necessary to graduate from high school and attend college. The Lincoln Foundation is devoted to identifying talented, underserved students for its Whitney M. Young Scholars program that provides mentorship, support and funding to make their goal of higher education a reality. On the front lines of this effort is College Transition Coach Jacqueline E. Ellis whose role includes doing everything she can to ensure that the Whitney M. Young Scholars successfully walk across that stage at the end of senior year.
“Whatever barriers they may face, whether it’s scholarship opportunities, personal situations, I will help them overcome those barriers,” says Ellis.
A quick history lesson since we’re focusing on education: In 1990, Lincoln Foundation created the Whitney M. Young Scholars Program (WYSP) named, in part, for Whitney M. Young, Jr. It elevates the humanitarian and activist’s commitment to education and social justice by providing college readiness programs to promising youth from under-resourced communities.
If you’re not familiar, Mr. Young was born on July 31, 1921, in Simpsonville. He is known as one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement, which included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph. The dedicated leader spent most of his career working to end employment discrimination in the United States and served as an advisor to three sitting Presidents; John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Ellis is on a mission to empower students to push through disparities and overcome adversity. The Lincoln Foundation’s college readiness program starts working with disadvantaged students in Kentuckiana before they make the transition out of grade school and continues with them to college. Many of the students she works with demonstrate grit and perseverance while making their way through unfortunate situations.
“That’s the reason why I get so connected with some of these scholars– knowing their struggles and knowing what they’ve persevered through,” she says. “Some of them come from the poorest zip codes in the city of Louisville, but yet they are the highest earning scholarship scholars. Nothing is stopping them.”
The program starts working with students who are academically talented beginning in the eighth grade. Each year, it admits students who demonstrate high potential in the classroom, but who are experiencing socioeconomic challenges.
“Some of our scholars are first generation students, so their families have relied heavily on them. They might be the breadwinners for some of the families and they might have to deal with some financial hardships,” says Ellis.
Students prepare for the rigors of college by committing to the program’s curriculum to enhance their dreams of graduating from college.
“Our scholars are at that level where they are asking, ‘Hey, can we do this? Can we go into the information technology field? Can we go into the engineering field? Can we get into a corporation?” says Ellis.
Once they make it to college, Ellis connects students with resources that focus on helping them achieve their goal. That ranges from making sure a student’s transition into college is smooth to finding internships and other scholarships that could enhance their professional development. For many of these students, it’s tough navigating the tasks that come with things like the admissions process. “There are always new issues that come up every single time I speak with them,” she says. “It’s always a situation like ‘Oh, I did not think about that’. So okay, let’s address this and let’s see what we can do to fix this.”
The Personal Connections
Ellis believes there are several benefits to her unique approach of identifying issues that may prevent these students from excelling. She says the 2023 graduating class earned over $11,000,000 in scholarships.
“The more that you pour into these kids, the better they will be,” she says. “I think sometimes there’s a tendency for people to tell the students what they cannot be. But, here at Lincoln, we tell them what they can be and what they can achieve.”
As a mother of an African-American son, Ellis says her work with these students is personal. She knows what it’s like for disadvantaged students to be told they don’t have the ability to achieve greatness. Ellis says her son was told that he needed special education courses in the third grade.
“I refused for someone to tell me that my son could not exceed academically. So I took that upon myself to learn everything that I could. I sat in on-site based committee meetings, and every advanced class that the school offered, I put him in,” says Ellis.
Her son ended up graduating from the University of Louisville. His success sparked Ellis’ journey to make sure other students have someone in their corner, advocating for their access to quality education.
“I have a saying that in order to reach them, you first have to reach the heart. I connect and have personal relationships with every one of our scholars,” says Ellis.
Ellis has a message for other parents who are looking for ways to contribute to their child’s learning experience.
“My number one suggestion to parents is to be involved,” she says. “I know parents are busy. Life is hectic, but try to be involved as much as possible.”
Following her son’s success, Ellis now has a passion to help students knock down whatever barriers that may come their way. Currently, she oversees at least 100 students.
“I will actually go to the campus and just need to lay my eyes on them. I just need to make sure that they’re doing okay, I need to hear it in their voice,” she says. “So I connect with them on a personal level and we have some personal conversations.”
The compassion that Ellis brings to her role allows students to open themselves up to sharing some very difficult issues.
“There might be some tears, but the ultimate result is ‘How can I help you and how can I assist you in order to number one, get over this barrier, and then get back refocusing?’” says Ellis.
But through it all, Ellis knows that her guidance is contributing to the excellence that allows these scholars to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. She says, “If you put in the work, you can achieve anything you want to and we will help you do that.”
If you want to learn more:
For more information and to find ways you can support their work by going to lincolnfdn.org. You can also donate to their cause through the Give for Good Louisville campaign on September 14 and targeting your donation to their organization.