National Urban Fellows Program Brings Diverse Perspectives to Philanthropy

Academic, mentoring opportunities pay off for fellows and their communities.

    • July 8, 2009

When Nicholas Pelzer entered the National Urban Fellows program in 2007, he had never worked in philanthropy. Following a nine-month mentorship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), he decided to make philanthropy his career.

The National Urban Fellows program “is the reason I’m at RWJF—it introduced me to philanthropy for the first time,” Pelzer said. “It got me into a door I otherwise might not have gotten into.”

Shortly after graduating from the National Urban Fellows program, RWJF hired Pelzer to serve as the program coordinator for the New Jersey Nursing Initiative, a five-year, $22 million partnership with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation that seeks to develop, implement and evaluate a statewide model to recruit and retain nurse faculty.

The National Urban Fellows program is committed to developing mid-career women and men of color as leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors, through rigorous academics combined with a nine-month mentorship experience. Upon graduating, Fellows receive a Master’s of Public Administration degree from Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system.

After Pelzer completes his work with the New Jersey Nursing Initiative, he’s considering returning to school for another master’s degree or a doctorate degree. He dreams of one day running a community foundation.

“I want to learn the skill sets and gain the experiences to be able to make that happen,” he said. “I’d like to get into thinking more strategically and make decisions at an executive level.”

Pelzer’s newfound passion for philanthropy is exactly what Debra Pérez had in mind in 2006 when she convinced RWJF to provide mentorship opportunities for several National Urban Fellows each year. A senior program officer at RWJF, Pérez is also a National Urban Fellow alum.

“There are very few diverse people in the philanthropy field,” Pérez said. “I wanted to teach mid-career professionals that philanthropy was an option and show people in philanthropy how to attract diverse perspectives.”

She describes the mentorships as a “win-win situation” for RWJF: the Foundation gets to work with highly-motivated, productive mid-careerists, and Fellows gain exposure to philanthropy, making the field more diverse.

Finding Ways to Improve their Communities

Pérez currently mentors three fellows: Jason León of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; Randy Lopez of Kansas City, Kansas; and Hallene Eldosougi of Indianapolis, Indiana. Overall, she has mentored 11 fellows, including Pelzer.

León spent the past nine months analyzing and evaluating the financing of the 2,800 U.S public health agencies. He also worked on RWJF’s Public Health Systems and Services Research initiatives, which use a systems perspective to research how non-government initiatives might complement public health services.

“RWJF has taught me to look at underlying factors to understand the causes of health care disparities and to seek long-term solutions instead of patchwork ideas that some politicians use to stop the bleeding,” he said.

León, a former certified public accountant and administrative secretary in Isabela, Puerto Rico, wants to return to government as a finance director or city manager for a medium-sized U.S. city after he graduates later this summer. He plans to harness the power of government to create policies that impact and improve communities.

Longer term, he’d like to make a bigger impact as a finance director or city manager for a larger U.S. city or in Puerto Rico. He’s considering running for the state legislature or Congress. “Working as a city manager sets you up for seeing issues and learning how to better address them and fulfill the duties of an elected official,” he said.  

Eldosougi also is considering running for public office, perhaps for the school board, when she returns to Indianapolis after graduation. She wants to “impact social change and empower people to have a voice and essentially become a change agent,” she says.

Eldosougi spent her mentorship as project director of the New Connections program, an $8.25 million national program designed to expand the diversity of perspectives that inform RWJF programming and introduce new researchers and scholars to the Foundation. She managed grantee recruitment and helped establish networking opportunities. She was also a member of the Initiative on the Future of Nursing, at the Institute of Medicine.

Before that, she and her husband operated a business that transported people from their homes to higher-paying jobs outside their communities. Although her husband still runs the business, Eldosougi intends to transition to a new career working with a community organization that empowers people to improve health outcomes, schools and create more local jobs. “I want to wake up every morning and have the same passion as the RWJF folks,” she said.

Lopez spent his mentorship helping to build a youth engagement strategy for the childhood obesity team, which is tasked with reversing the obesity epidemic by 2015. “The exposure I received from RWJF to philanthropy, policy, advocacy and social change was eye-opening,” Lopez said. “The experience has made me think I can change the world wherever I’m at.”

He intends to return to Kansas City, where he worked as a nurse and was active coaching a youth basketball team, starting a neighborhood group for primarily Spanish-speaking Latinos and helping to spearhead a bilingual service at his church.

This time, he wants to make an impact beyond his local community by working in a philanthropic, nonprofit or government setting.

Lopez credits Pérez’ mentorship skills in helping him grow. Her “passion for knowledge, education and for the National Urban Fellows program is evident by the way she pushes me to grow, learn and strive for excellence both professionally and academically.”  

Pérez said she treasures the personal relationships she’s cultivated, and she stays in touch with Fellows after they leave the Foundation.

“I get an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives, as others have made in mine,” Pérez said. “Mentoring takes a lot of energy, time and patience. Every year we start from zero and get to the point where the National Urban Fellow becomes a loved member of the RWJF family. I get as much back as I give by investing in and mentoring the National Urban fellows.”

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