During his year as a Fulbright Scholar in Johannesburg, South Africa, Chris McLaurin met with students who were approaching college age. Many were orphaned; most were from impoverished areas. To have a chance at completing a college degree, they would have to clear some major obstacles.
“One of the biggest problems was that a lot of these kids were traveling from townships to universities. It’s hard to bridge the gap of cultures, the distance gap from their homes. Many of them still had family demands that took up a lot of time,” says McLaurin, who graduated magna cum laude in 2009. “All of these issues led to a high [college] dropout rate.”
So McLaurin helped to create a program that matches students with mentors, many of whom are students at local universities. The mentors provide guidance and assistance about everything involved in the college experience, from what courses the younger students should take to what kinds of careers they should pursue.
McLaurin’s passion for mentorship stems from the role mentors played in his own life following the death of his father, a former Pontiac police sergeant, when McLaurin was 15.
“After losing my best mentor, my father, mentorship became a crucial piece in my development,” McLaurin says.
It’s this drive to improve the lives of people around the world that led the Luce Scholars Program to select McLaurin for its 2012-13 class. The competitive American-Asian exchange program (he was one of 18 scholars chosen from 143 candidates) will give McLaurin the opportunity to further expand his experience in social policy and law, and to “gain exposure to leaders who are dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged populations in their corner of the world,” he says.
The program will begin with two months of Mandarin language immersion in Beijing. After that, he hopes to receive a placement in Shanghai or Hong Kong. McLaurin credits LSA’s International Institute for helping him learn about the Luce program, assisting with the application process, and introducing him to past Luce scholars.
The Luce experience will add one more credential to McLaurin’s already strong involvement with public service. Recruited in 2005 as a tight end on the Michigan football team, he always approached the student-athlete concept with equal emphasis on both words. During his junior year, repeated shoulder injuries meant he had to decide between more surgeries in order to keep playing, or focusing solely on academics. He decided on the latter, based in large part on the advice of a mentor, a law student at U-M.
On his way to graduating with high honors, he created a program that would provide young people in residential group homes with positive student role models from the University. McLaurin was awarded the Martin Luther King Central Campus Spirit Award in 2008 for founding the program.
Following graduation, he went to South Africa for his Fulbright year. In addition to the mentorship program he founded there, modeled after the program he created at U-M, he contributed to a case study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme and Harvard Law School. His role was to interview community organizers who had protested and were taking legal action against a prepaid water meter system that did not meet the needs of many poor families.
From there, he earned a master’s in Social Policy and Planning at the London School of Economics and worked as a parliamentary intern in the House of Commons. He also served as a public affairs intern and researcher for the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading independent race and ethnicity think tank.
While much of his work has been international, he also held a prominent post in the United States. When he returned from London in 2010, he received an internship at the White House Domestic Policy Council, where he worked on issues of workforce development, poverty alleviation, child nutrition, and civil rights. “I had gained an understanding from seeing things play out internationally that helped to inform my experience at the White House,” he says.
For the past school year, he has taught at his high school alma mater, St. Mary’s Preparatory in Orchard Lake, Michigan. Once he returns from the Luce program, he hopes to attend law school, possibly at Michigan, with an eye toward working with the ACLU or focusing on civil rights legislation.
His exposure to issues around the world has, he says, “left me rich with testimony” for the need to better address the issues afflicting families and children from low-income backgrounds through social policy. “So many disadvantaged populations around the world need someone who will look out for them. That’s where I think I can make a difference.”