Magic Johnson's scholarship program making positive impact

LOS ANGELES – In sports, it's essential for an athlete to adapt and adjust to an unfamiliar situation. That's true for any sport, from basketball to chess to even synchronized swimming.

But anyone can relate to adapting and adjusting to trials and tribulations in their lives. And five-time NBA champion and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson has drilled that message home to the 150 students participating in his foundation's annual Life Skills Leadership Conference.

These students are all a part of the Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program, one subsidiary of the Magic Johnson Foundation. The program was founded in 1998 – making this year its 15th anniversary – and is named after the former COO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, who had died that year. Johnson described Michaels as a woman who had a passion for helping to change the lives of young people.

"She would just devote all her time and energy toward making sure if they needed a computer, needed a hug, needed a high five [they would receive one]," Johnson said.

Each year, the program's selection committee chooses 30 to 35 high school seniors from urban areas across the country to become a part of the program. The scholars receive from $2,000 to $5,000 in tuition assistance, a laptop before their freshman year of college and a trip to Los Angeles for a weeklong leadership conference each summer of their college years.

Johnson takes pride the program is unlike many scholarship funds: It provides more than just money. The students and Johnson describe the program as a family where its members truly get to know one another, as the scholars get face time with the three-time MVP. During the students' tour of Dodger Stadium as part of the conference, Johnson spent about four hours talking and answering questions in the dugout and stadium club.

"A lot of companies write checks but never get to meet [the students]. But we write a check, and they get to see me, talk to me, hug me, tell me what their goals are, their dreams are," Johnson said. "That's what separates us. We stay with them forever – not just for the four years."

And once you're in the family, you're not backing out. In the program's 15 years, not one student has dropped out. Johnson explained one situation where a young man thought he'd have to drop out because his mother couldn't take him to college, but the program provided him with a ride to take care of it. He also spoke of another situation where a woman in the program got pregnant, and there was no way Johnson was going to let her drop out, either.

"I sat her down and said, 'You're going to go have a baby, and then you're going to go back to school,' " Johnson said. "I said, 'You're not going to go and have a baby, and [be] uneducated. In this society? That's going to be a disaster.' "

The woman ended up having the baby, marrying the child's father and still earned her degree with the program's help.

"That's what a family is supposed to be about. They can bring to us anything," Johnson said. "I'm real with them, and that's what it's all about."

Another element that makes the program unique is its annual leadership conference, held in Los Angeles. The students spend a week in the city performing community service, touring landmarks, and hearing from a variety of speakers.

"We want to bring them an assortment of different types of people and let them listen, and also listen to their journey, because everybody's journey is not the same," Johnson said. "It's really important that we bring different types of speakers, and different types of people, so they can understand that, hey, she may have made it one way, but this person made it a different way."

The speakers, however, don't only tell success stories. The young men and women heard from individuals living with HIV, and Chris Herren, a former college basketball and NBA player, discuss his 12-year struggle with drug addiction. Herren's story especially elicited an emotional response from the students, and likely made a strong impact on all of them.

"It was just shocking because you figured one experience was rock bottom, but then he just kept going," Zoe Tucker, a rising junior at Central State, said.

The conference also fosters interaction between the scholars. They all stayed together in dorms at Loyola Marymount University, where the older students were able to share their experiences with the "rookies" – those about to begin their college careers.

"It's not just all professional," Jordan Adams-Holston said. "We can kick back and relax with you, talk to you about just being a college student, having fun. But at the same time, knowing you have to get your work done and that you're here for a reason."

Adams-Holston graduated from Hampton University in May, and is currently serving as an Army recruiter in Virginia before he begins his basic leadership training in Arizona in September. He wanted so much to attend his final conference that he bought into his leave from the Army in order to be there.

"I felt like I had to be at the conference, especially for my last one," he said. "I've come such a long way being at this conference from the time I was a freshman and not being able to say much, to the time of me being here and being a leader in the Army."

That Adams-Holston credits the program for his sense of confidence validates much of what Johnson wants it to do.

"They have to be ready to speak, and at a moment's notice," he said. "I can call one of them up and say, 'Tell the people about you and how the program has helped you,' and they've got to go for it. And just at that second deliver the message."

That's why there are no shortage of success stories coming out of the Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program. It was clear when the Class of 2013 came across the program's awards brunch stage to announce from where they'd graduated and their future plans. But even those who won't be walking the stage for two years feel set to adapt and adjust their way to the top.

"This program, this conference has really given me the confidence to know that I'm able to climb the ladder, to know that I'm able to do anything I put my mind to," Tucker said.

And that is what adapting and adjusting for success is all about.

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