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Shock the World Campaign
In This Issue

       

Lee Pelton ’73 gives $50,000 to help underrepresented students study humanities at WSU



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A liberal arts education changed the course of Lee Pelton’s life.

As a freshman at Wichita State University in 1969, he planned to become a lawyer or engineer, professions he thought would lead to a middle-class life, or better. But Pelton felt no passion for the subject matter and dropped out at the end of the year.

“I was direction-less,” Pelton recalls. “I took a year off, spent some time in Europe with a bunch of young intellectuals, and learned that the two things I loved to do most were reading and writing, both of which are fundamental to human society.”

“I returned to Wichita State from my leave with a firm conviction that I wanted to study literature and literary history and the ways in which ideas shape the world. So, I enrolled in Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the English Department saved me.”

Pelton, now president of Emerson College in Boston, wants to see more students with his background – born to a working-class African-American family and the first in his family to attend college – to discover how the study of the humanities can transform their lives. He recently donated $50,000 to Wichita State to support the Gordon Parks Fellowship in English Literature.

The fellowship is targeted at underrepresented students with financial need, a population that – like Pelton – tends to enter college believing their best hope of financial mobility is learning a profession or vocation. The WSU English Department hopes the fellowship – named for Kansas-born artist Gordon Parks – will encourage more of these students to pursue a master’s degree in the humanities. “Gordon Parks was one of our nation’s leading African-American writers, musicians, photographer and film directors,” Pelton says. “The link between his work and what Fairmount College offers is increasingly important in a world in which ideas and words seem to matter less and less.”

Wichita State is recognized for its strong connection to Parks. The Special Collections department at Ablah Library is home to the Gordon Parks Papers, while the Ulrich Museum of Art has more than 150 of his photographs.

“We hope to continue to honor Gordon Parks’ legacy at Wichita State through this prestigious fellowship, while also helping underrepresented students overcome barriers to graduate-level education,” says Mary Waters, chair of the English Department.

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Lee Pelton

When Pelton returned to WSU after his time abroad, he developed close relationships with the English Department faculty, who mentored him through his undergraduate years. Their guidance and his perseverance – he once took seven classes in a semester, despite being told such a heavy load simply wasn’t done – helped him earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in English and American literature and languages with a concentration in 19th-century British prose and poetry.

“Fairmount College had a profound impact on me,” he says. “It introduced me to ways of knowing and seeing the world through literature and the arts. It launched my career into higher education as a professor, administrator and lifelong learner. Fairmont College taught me that the purpose of education is, to paraphrase Plato, to be fit company not only for others, but myself as well.”

That career has been marked by one stellar appointment after another, first as deans at Colgate University and Dartmouth College, then the first African-American president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He was named president of Emerson in 2011.

In 2017, he received the WSU Alumni Association’s top honor, the Achievement Award, and also was presented with an honorary doctorate at commencement. Pelton receives many invitations to speak at schools and institutions around the world, and one of his common themes is how important a liberal arts education continues to be.

He chose the liberal arts, he tells his audiences, “and now, engineers, architects, computer whizzes and lawyers work for me.”

Pelton gift to jumpstart Gordon Parks Fellowship
The WSU English Department hopes Lee Pelton’s gift of $50,000 will inspire others to support the Gordon Parks Fellowship, so that it provides a high-impact award each year to deserving students. The goal is to create an endowment of $175,000, which would result in an annual scholarship of about $7,000.


For more information

If you would like to learn more about investing in the Gordon Parks Fellowship, contact Amy Tully, WSU Foundation Associate Director of Development (LAS & Libraries), at 316.978.3805 or amy.tully@wichita.edu.

Amy Tulley