Lehigh’s student population looked different 55 years ago from what it does today. When Frank Douglas, ‘66, was an undergraduate, he was one of four Black students on campus.
Born and raised in Guyana, Douglas said he did not have the financial means to attend college in the U.S.
“I was saving money to be able to go away, but I needed a couple more years to be able to go off and study,” Douglas said. “I did not know anyone who had studied in America.”
Douglas earned the Fulbright Scholarship, which allowed him to attend Lehigh.
He said the scholarship changed his life tremendously.
“The unfortunate thing is that it is very difficult to pursue your goals if you have financial difficulties without help from institutions,” Douglas said.
During his time at Lehigh, he said he had close relationships with several professors who left an impact on him, including then dean of students Ross Yates.
When Douglas was invited to join two fraternities, he could not afford the initiation fees and had to decline both.
Douglas was shocked to receive a call from Yates asking him why he declined the fraternities’ offers. When he told Yates he couldn’t afford the fees, Yates offered to pay for Douglas so he could join the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity.
Douglas graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering from Lehigh and later received a doctorate and medical doctorate from Cornell. Since then, he has established himself as a prominent figure in the medicine and engineering fields.
Henry Odi, deputy vice president for Equity and Community at Lehigh, said after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the Lehigh class of 2011 wanted to come together to make a difference.
To help fight for racial equality and promote education opportunities for Black students, the class of 2011 established the Dr. Frank Douglas ’66 Endowed Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Black Excellence in Douglas’ name.
“They arrived at the decision of who to name the scholarship after, and they contacted me and indicated that they wanted to name it after Frank Douglas,” Odi said. “They looked at it as a way of launching a scholarship that will be given to Black students at Lehigh to bring positive things to others’ lives.”
Douglas said it was an incredible honor to have this scholarship fund established in his name, as he believes supporting underrepresented students is important.
“All my life I have supported underrepresented minorities,” Douglas said. “(This scholarship) recognizes my efforts that I have made in small ways over the many years.”
Jason Schiffer, assistant vice president of campus security and chief of Lehigh police, donated to the scholarship on Giving Day this year. He said he did so because he believes in improving access to higher education for underserved communities.
Schiffer said scholarships like this help break down barriers and privileges of certain groups.
“There are groups of people where the cost of college isn’t a concern,” Schiffer said. “And then there are so many others that it’s not only a huge concern, but it’s everything.”
Douglas said when he attended Lehigh, it did not have the global reach it has now.
He said among the four Black students on campus, three were foreign and only one was a Black American.
Douglas said he still thinks Lehigh needs to increase its efforts and has a long way to go in terms of diversity.
“I’m really actually quite disappointed that the percentage of Black students at Lehigh has not increased for five years,” Douglas said. “I find that astounding, frankly — I’ll be very blunt about it.”
Odi said Black students make up about 5% of the student body out of the 5,600 Lehigh undergraduates.
He said the university has made great strides to diversify the undergraduate student population, and it has evolved significantly over the years as a result.
Although some progress has been made, Odi said he is reminded of the ongoing work that is ahead.
“Ultimately, the goal is for us to continue to work as hard as we can to make sure that every person at Lehigh will feel that they belong only regardless of their race, gender or other identities,” Odi said.