Women In Focus goes beyond a scholarship for students of color

More than 300 students have received scholarships
Women In Focus goes beyond a scholarship for students of color
Romulo Ueda
Portia Adney (center) with two scholarship recipients Khailani Slaton (left) and Krystyn Jones (right)

For more than 35 years, Women In Focus has addressed the opportunity gap for Madison’s students of color. The group’s name derives from the professional women who founded the nonprofit in 1983, not the gender of scholarship recipients. Since the organization’s founding, more than 300 students of color have received $550,000 in academic scholarships. Year after year during the annual I Have a Dream Ball, Women In Focus members receive affirmation listening to the students’ stories and how the scholarship program drove them forward. The 2019 recipients have a variety of backgrounds. Some were first-generation students whose families immigrated from Africa, Mexico and Vietnam. Some grew up in foster care or lived through violent armed conflict.

Portia Adney, a volunteer with Women In Focus, helped select this year’s awardees. She is an educational assistant at Madison Country Day School, where she helps students improve their reading, writing and math skills. She is also a print model and actress who has worked in two independent films since moving to Madison from New York City nearly two years ago. Here is an edited Q&A with Adney, who discusses what Women In Focus means to her and the greater Madison community. Women In Focus goes beyond a scholarship for students of color

Why did you join Women In Focus as a volunteer and what do you get out of it?
I get the joy of kids realizing their dreams. For instance, I was able to call the scholarship winners and say, “Guess what? We are giving you money for college.” The reactions are so great that you want to call them again to redo it. That is what you get out of it – that joy of knowing you helped someone achieve something that maybe seems impossible or that they know is going to be difficult. Also, I was a scholarship winner when I was in college. I received around 90% tuition finance, and so I know how important that is when you don’t have money and people say, “We believe in you.” It is really nice to be able to pay that forward to others.

What is it like to read applications and hear the scholarship recipients tell their stories about overcoming barriers to education?
It makes me feel lazy. You read these stories and then you self-reflect to when you were a teenager. I’m like, “Yeah, you just make me look unambitious.” Reading these stories you realize how privileged we really are in our lives. There is a kid out there who is working five times harder than you are right now, so get up and go face your life. It is inspiring. It is also a counter conversation to the conversation most people have about “young people today.” Young people today want progress and they want change. We are not going to see the change unless we are supporting our youth. So yes, let’s fund them.Women In Focus goes beyond a scholarship for students of color

Can you tell us about some of the scholarship recipients?
One of the fellows came from Gambia and his goals are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Because he immigrated as a child and has gone back to Gambia, he sees the technological issues that are lacking there as a developing nation and the tools that he is able to gain here in a developed nation. He has global perspective on how he can use technology to bring forward already developed nations but also go into developing countries and get them up to speed. He has beautiful insight, goals and initiatives to serve domestically as well as abroad.

Women In Focus has given more than $550,000 in scholarships and has worked for 36 years on volunteer efforts. What would you attribute the group’s success to?
The people who support us. It is the work of the volunteers that make up the organization, but our work would be nothing without all our sponsors and donors. People who come out year after year and say, “We believe in your work and we will continue to support you and spread the word so others can also get on board.” We would like to make our organization stronger and larger so we can support more students. Right now we narrow the scholarships to 12 students, but we would like to be able to support 40 students. We want to give people as much money as possible for their education and their goals.

Mackenzie Krumme is a Madison writer and a former intern at Madison Magazine.