MLK Scholars Answer King's Question

By Kelli B. Grant ’04, July 13, 2018
“What are you doing for others?” The Martin Luther King Scholar Program celebrates 15 years of challenging its participants to find their answer.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

The college's Martin Luther King Scholar Program—now celebrating its 15th anniversary—challenges participants to answer King’s question, not only during their time on campus but throughout the rest of their lives as well.

The MLK Scholar Program does provide generous academic assistance, with participants receiving a minimum merit-based scholarship of $25,000. But simply calling it a scholarship misses the mark. At its heart, the program is about making a difference in the world by advancing King’s legacy of social justice and equality.

“The MLK Scholar Program develops academically talented students from historically underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds into future leaders and global citizens,” says the program’s director, Malinda B. Smith, who retired this spring.

To support those aims, scholars undertake a rigorous program merging academic, leadership, community service, and social justice goals.

Scholars embark on a civil rights tour of the South during their first year and international trips in subsequent years to learn about social justice and equal rights in other parts of the world. Those trips support a multiyear research project culminating in presentations at the college’s James J. Whalen Academic Symposium.

There have been 150 MLK scholars since the program’s introduction in 2002, including alumni and current students. Those participants have taken paths as varied as their backgrounds, but there’s a common thread: they say the program was a pivotal influence in shaping how they help others.

Here’s how some alumni are answering King’s question.

Hy V. Huynh '08

As a newly minted associate in research at Duke University’s Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research, Hy V. Huynh ’08 works on policy-relevant research and interventions to support orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. The position makes the best of Huynh’s years of international development and not-for-profit experience, educational training, and passion for visual storytelling.

“There’s a Japanese concept that I love called ikigai,” says Huynh. Loosely translated as “a reason for being,” the term entails searching for the intersection of four things: what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs.

“After 20-plus years of studying and searching…it feels like I’ve finally found my ikigai,” he says. “I know wholeheartedly that I wouldn’t be here without those early formative experiences with anthropology and the MLK Scholar Program at Ithaca College.”

It’s been a long road. Huynh grew up in Endicott, New York—where his parents, both refugees from Vietnam, resettled. Ithaca was a frequent destination for family trips.

When it came time to start the college search, Huynh’s brother, a guidance counselor, pointed him to IC’s MLK Scholar Program. It seemed like a natural fit for the community-service-focused student.

“I can trace the impact of the MLK Scholar Program throughout my professional growth.”

Lethia McFarland Bernard '13

Becoming a part of the program proved an important influence on Huynh’s life trajectory.

“Everyone constantly challenged me to think more critically and act more compassionately,” he says. “The global justice seminars on campus deepened and grounded my understanding of social justice theory, while the international travel seminars…gave us experiences to explore other lives and cultures that contrasted with our own to help us build deeper empathy for our work.”

Huynh started off as a computer science major but found anthropology a better fit as his interests in humanitarian work deepened.

“That anthropology degree really helped me cultivate skills of deep reflection, careful observation, exploration of contexts, and critical thought—skills that I still use every day in my personal and professional life,” Huynh says.

After graduation, he received a Ford Foundation Community Fellowship, volunteering for a year in Vietnam through a nonprofit organization called Volunteers in Asia.

“I was placed in a residential children’s home for orphaned and vulnerable children,” he says. “There I taught English, created and facilitated positive youth development programs, and coordinated extracurricular activities and big volunteer groups.”

It was such a powerful experience that Huynh stayed on for three years after the fellowship, working with that children’s home as well as other nonprofits focusing on orphaned and vulnerable children.

“Much of my work with the children embraced a focus on resilience, positive youth development, and civic engagement strategies,” he says.

He also began taking work as a photographer, hoping to use his skills to make humanitarian efforts more relatable and ethically presented for the public.

“Vietnam was where I learned so much about myself and my unique strengths and passions,” he says. “I became more aware of my passion to work with and for youth, my cultural heritage and identity—a delicate balancing act between being American and Vietnamese—my leadership strengths of adaptability, relationship building, and strategic planning, as well as my broader philosophies on life and happiness.”

It was tempting to stay in Vietnam, but Huynh wanted theoretical experience to match what he’d learned in the field. In 2012, he returned to the United States to pursue a doctorate through Clemson University’s International Family and Community Studies program. In this program, he realized his calling as a lifelong advocate for orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. His experience in the Clemson program led him to Duke—and his ikigai.

“This appointment [at Duke] integrates my social science and justice background and my love for visual storytelling,” he says. “I’m extremely grateful to be working with Dr. Kate Whetten and other leading experts in the [orphaned and vulnerable children] field, and I feel especially fortunate to have found a place that truly celebrates my interdisciplinary strengths.”

To learn more about Huynh's work, visit or his personal website,

María González-Howard ’08

A standout high school physics teacher who taught from real-world examples rather than a textbook spurred María González-Howard ’08 on her path to become an educator.

“My mother is a Spanish teacher, and my father’s a professor in electrical engineering—and so I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in which I could blend my interest in science with teaching and learning,” she says. “Furthermore, after my amazing high school experience, I wanted to ensure that more students had opportunities to learn—and love—science the way that I had.”

But it took catching up with a former soccer teammate, Kimberly Gillman ’07, to put both Ithaca College and the MLK Scholar Program on González-Howard’s radar.

“Kim talked about how much she was enjoying Ithaca College and brought up the MLK Scholar Program and all of the experiences that she had had being a part of it,” GonzálezHoward says. “Everything about the program, from its social justice drive to the opportunities for international travel and research, resounded heavily with my beliefs and interests.”

Plus, the college had a strong physics department. González-Howard was sold.

“Both Ithaca College and the MLK Scholar Program moved to the top of my college search,” she says.

Once at Ithaca, González-Howard majored in physics and minored in mathematics and anthropology. Her research efforts as an MLK scholar focused on educational practices in the countries the scholars visited, including England, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Spain, and Morocco.

“Everyone constantly challenged me to think more critically and act more compassionately.”

Hy V. Huynh

“My MLK research experience, along with the knowledge I gained from my undergraduate education courses, led to my realization of the inequality that is deeply rooted in the United States’ educational system,” she says.

As a result, González-Howard decided to apply for Teach for America. She spent two years after graduation as an eighth-grade science teacher in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, near the border with Mexico. All of her students identified as Latino or Hispanic and more than half were learning English as their second language. “

As a science teacher—a subject heavy on vocabulary, experimentation, and analysis—I witnessed my students’ difficulty simultaneously learning science and English,” says González-Howard, who herself learned English as a second language during her childhood.

That experience took González-Howard’s interest in teaching in a new direction. She went back to school, earning a master’s degree in education at Boston University in teaching English as a second language and then a doctorate from Boston College in curriculum and instruction. Now, she’s at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The work I do as an assistant professor in STEM education is grounded in improving the science educational opportunities of linguistically diverse students,” she says.

González-Howard’s aim is twofold: conduct research that explores how to best support students in their dual goals of acquiring English while learning science and help budding teachers build a set of instructional practices and perspectives that help them meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

“Overall, I would like to influence science education so that it is taught in ways that mirror how the discipline is carried out in real life—having students develop, evaluate, and revise their own understandings of scientific phenomena,” she says. “Furthermore, I want to ensure that all students’ voices and ideas are heard and valued in the science classroom.”

Lethia McFarland Bernard '13

As Lethia McFarland Bernard ’13 tells it, her time at Ithaca College—and in particular in the MLK Scholar Program—helped her fine-tune her strategy of contributing to the world.

“I can trace the impact of the MLK Scholar Program throughout my professional growth,” says the women’s health research analyst.

Ithaca College had already been on her short list for its Roy H. Park School of Communications and specifically the integrated marketing communications program. Then she started reading about the MLK Scholar Program.

“The more that I learned, the more I realized how much the values of the program aligned with my own values and my own desire to really contribute to the global community,” Bernard says. “It was truly the MLK program that differentiated Ithaca, with the opportunity to engage in international social justice research and the community service element, and really emulating the life and work of Dr. King.”

Serving as an MLK scholar not only fueled Bernard’s desire to make a difference in the local and global community but also shaped her role in doing so. Her research project, formed during program trips to the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, focused on health equity and gender-based violence.

“My international research travel and service is really what exposed me to the field I work in right now: global health,” she says. “Having the opportunity to engage in that caliber of research internationally at the undergraduate level is truly unparalleled, I can say now in hindsight.”

Bernard honed her writing and advocacy skills by interning for the communications departments at several public health organizations. A semester with the Cornell in Washington program led her to an internship with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, letting her gain insight into policy analysis.

“It was my first time combining my interest and background in communications, policy, and advocacy within the realm of global health,” she says. “That was my first exposure to the global health policy environment…and I really loved what I was doing there.”

“Everything about the program, from its social justice drive to the opportunities for international travel and research, resounded heavily with my beliefs and interests.”

María González-Howard ’08

After graduation, Bernard spent two and a half years working with the American Society for Microbiology, working on health systems programs in the group’s international affairs department. To further her opportunities, she went back to school to earn a master of science in global health from Georgetown University.

“I’ve always been interested in advancing health equity and access in low- and middleincome countries, so I went to Georgetown to get more of a technical skillset in that,” she says.

The degree also hearkened back to her experiences at Ithaca.

“A lot of the research I did in my master’s program was really reflective of the research I did in the MLK Scholar Program,” she says. “I could trace back that prep and exposure.”

Now Bernard is a research and policy analyst with nonprofit Population Action International, which focuses on research, policy advocacy, and partnerships to promote universal access to reproductive health and rights. She works on domestic and international programs, aiming to remove policy barriers and champion policies that advance women’s access to sexual and reproductive health-care services and rights.

“I’m really passionate about health systems and…shaping policy that ultimately increases access to health care for women,” she says. “I feel like I’m in the exact right place and really fortunate to be able to say that.”

And Bernard’s integrated marketing communications education still plays a role.

“Outwardly, it seems totally different, but in fact, that program…really shaped the way that I approach any sort of advocacy and policy initiative,” she says. “Shaping the message from a research and advocacy perspective in a way that will speak to a policy-making audience is completely dependent on strategic communications and the way you package that material.”