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Growth, diversity, and public service underscore five years of Knight-Hennessy Scholars

Impactful public service projects and an increasingly diverse network of scholars are among the highlights of the first years of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which supports Stanford graduate students and strengthens their leadership skills.

Four years after welcoming its first cohort, Knight-Hennessy Scholars (KHS) is expanding and taking greater form.

Knight-Hennessy Scholars attend a welcome event on their first day in the program. (Image credit: Micaela Go)

“As scholars graduate, we build an alumni network that broadens our reach and helps us find more qualified candidates around the world,” said John L. Hennessy, co-founder and Shriram Family Director of KHS.

In 2016, Hennessy, who served as Stanford’s 10th president from 2000 to 2016, and Nike founder Phil Knight, MBA ’62, established the program with the goal of educating and preparing a community of scholars for leadership roles across sectors. The program welcomed its first cohort of 50 scholars in 2018, many of whom have since moved on to the next phase of their education and careers. KHS just announced the 2022 cohort of 70 incoming Stanford graduate students, bringing the total community to 339 scholars.

In addition to its size, the KHS demographics have evolved. Hennessy said that with each new cohort, the program is becoming increasingly diverse. Scholars come from a wide range of countries, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, and are working in a variety of fields. Many are the first in their families to attend college, while others are active members of the U.S. military.

“The diversity of the community is good for the university as a whole, and also a great opportunity for our scholars. They’re going to work in a society that’s highly diverse, and in leadership positions where they need to work with people who come from very different backgrounds,” he said.

In addition to funding up to three years of graduate study at Stanford, KHS provides scholars with mentorship and programming designed to help them learn how to lead organizations and address global challenges. Less than two years into the program, scholars were confronted with a major opportunity to put their leadership skills to work.

Public service projects

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Stanford campus in March 2020, KHS was forced to close its home, Denning House, and move all operations online. Executive Director Tina Seelig said that KHS pivoted to developing virtual programming by taking advantage of online resources like Zoom break-out rooms, video chats, and digital whiteboards. They also welcomed guest speakers virtually – including Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation and Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste – whom they may not have been able to meet in person. Seelig also noted the inspiring ways that students in the program reacted to the crisis.

John Hennessy and Tina Seelig speak to scholars at the Autumn Retreat. (Image credit: Katherine Emery)

“These scholars really rallied,” she said. “They used their professional domain expertise to address so many issues, such as studying disparities in access to health care treatments and conducting research related to vaccines.”

Scholars from across disciplines collected personal protective equipment that they donated to low-cost health clinics in need. Others worked on a public education campaign aimed at communicating the importance of taking preventative health care measures, such as masking and vaccination. Another scholar started a nonprofit for donating unused gift cards to overwhelmed food banks and retailers struggling to meet demand. The organization generated millions of dollars-worth of funds.

Aside from pandemic-related causes, scholar-led projects are focused on finding better ways to acquire startup capital in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is notoriously difficult, and developing better methods of preparing school board members to work in areas they may not be familiar with, such as budgeting.

Before enrolling at Stanford, Knight-Hennessy scholar Max Kessler, a first-year doctoral student studying mechanical engineering, co-founded TravlerPack, an initiative that makes sleeping bags for refugees in the Middle East. He said that the community and networking opportunities in KHS have been invaluable resources as he considers how to further develop his organization.

“I really value the breadth of experience that other scholars bring to the program,” he said. “Learning and interacting with people outside of my field – people studying law, the humanities, business – and learning about their perspectives and experiences doing similar nonprofit and humanitarian work has been really important.”

Kessler said that since joining the Knight-Hennessy community, he’s been inspired to double down on the fundraising efforts for his organization.

“This year we’ve raised $115,000 that will enable us to send over 1,500 more sleeping bags to refugees in Syria, with help from our nonprofit partner, NuDay Syria,” he said.

Looking ahead

With so many scholars interested in public service, Hennessy said that KHS will develop more programming to help them pursue those opportunities, including preparing them to serve in public office. He said that KHS will also continue to internationalize by attracting scholars from places around the world that the program has not yet reached.

With the pandemic receding and operations at Denning House getting back to normal, KHS will also prioritize community-building, which is a major aspect of the program. Since returning to campus, scholars have also taken on a much greater role in the development of KHS, including organizing scholar-driven events.

Now that some scholars have graduated, Seelig said she’s eager to see the alumni population grow and engage with the community.

“That’s where the real magic happens,” she said. “The more alumni we have, the more we can call upon them as mentors, as speakers, and as role models to support the next generation of scholars.”

Although the program is still young, Seelig said she’s optimistic about where the scholars will go and how they’ll use the knowledge, skills, and community they develop in the program to address important challenges.

“As this community evolves over time, they’ll land in lots of different places in the world and will continue their collaborations,” she said. “We understand that the true impact of KHS will be measured not in years but in decades.”