Ebony McGee finds her life running at a breakneck pace.

She's trying to maintain her equilibrium as she balances a mountain of tasks and moves closer each hour to finishing her dissertation at the University of Illinois.

For a woman of color, her dissertation will be in an uncommon major: math. But it's a subject McGee enjoys; it's a subject that fills her days.

She could be putting her time into other things, too. McGee could still be working for a Fortune 500 company, banking big bucks. She could be teaching in a Chicago classroom, infusing her passion for the intricacies of numbers into urban youngsters.

But she's in college again -- a PhD student by choice. She's cementing her future in education; she's putting an exclamation point on a dream that too few black Americans hold.

They often look at hoops and hip-hop as the only pathways to success. Sports and music are their hopes and dreams, often their only hopes and dreams.

"That's fine to have those dreams," McGee said, her voice lively and self-assured. "But why not have something else to fall back on? Why not math?"

McGee knows well the difficulties of fulfilling a dream. The South Side of Chicago, where she grew up, can dash more dreams than it makes. Yet she found people who were eager to help turn her dream into reality.

Today, she can boast of being one of 1,200 urban youth who have benefited from the mentoring and the financial support of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.

Since its founding in 1973, the foundation has had a clear mission, which it borrowed from its revered namesake: "A life is not important except in its impact on other lives."

The Foundation carries out that mission through educational programs like the Jackie Robinson Fellowship, the Rachel Robinson International Fellowship and Extra Innings, a 3-year-old initiative that has helped 12 past fellows like McGee continue their educations on the graduate level, said Della Britton Baeza, the president of the Foundation.

Extra Innings has assumed greater importance in a world that grows more expansive, more complex each day. Yesterday's bachelor's degree is today's master's degree and tomorrow's doctorate. Against this backdrop, the foundation is mindful that blacks and Hispanics need to remain academically competitive, Britton Baeza said.

"Having those extra degrees will really help you be more competitive," she said. "It's all this whole standard of excellence. What we do is give them the tools.

"We say to them, 'OK, here are the contexts; here are the skills.'"

The foundation and its various programs provide the wherewithal to allow minorities to acquire these ever-evolving skills. It provides more than money, however; because money alone won't fill the various voids people from impoverished backgrounds tend to bring into this global world, she said.

The foundation connects its scholarship winners with mentors, who play significant roles in a fellow's success. The foundation offers financial planning; it advises on career development; it counsels on career choices; it offers internship placement; and it teaches strategies for succeeding in life.

All are part of a comprehensive program to develop minds that will enter the workaday world armed with tools for success, said Heather Cannady, an Extra Innings fellow who graduated last June with a law degree from Harvard University.

Cannady, a JRF fellow, entered Extra Innings after graduating from New York University, where she developed an interest in law as a sophomore. At NYU, she shaped her interest in global issues and went abroad to pursue them, including two visits in Morocco to work on women's rights. She studied Arabic while there.

The people at the Foundation, including founder Rachel Robinson and various mentors, have kept Cannady focused on the goals she's set for herself. She's committed, she said, to ensuring that others of color have the same opportunities she has had.

Extra Innings Fellows, 2007-08
Name
School
Degree
Chika V. AnekweUConn School of MedicineMD
Fana M. AragawU. of MarylandDDS
Adrienne D. BakerHarvard Law SchoolJD
Heather Cannady*Harvard Law SchoolJD
Melvin L. Dillard IIIHoward Dental SchoolDDS
Henry HortonHarvard Medical SchoolMD
Daisy Lundy LovelaceU.Va. Curry School of EducationPhD
Shylene MataCornell UniversityMPA
Ebony O. McGeeU. of Illinois at ChicagoPhD
Drew StewartHarvard Law SchoolJD
Yetunde I. Tyehimba-FatobaU. of Maryland College of Dental SurgeryDDS
Rachel WhiteUCLA Medical SchoolMD
Molly YangU. Minn. Medical SchoolMD
*Graduated

Her mission statement mirrors the Foundation's: She wants to lend a helping hand to somebody else. She's embraced that philosophy of helping others. She's giving her time and her money to issues that better society.

It's a philosophy she learned through the foundation and its programs.

"I would like to be able to say that people find me helpful or that people think that I have some strengths that are useful for their purposes," said Cannady, now a law clerk for a federal judge in Manhattan.

She and McGee typify JRF fellows. They are smashing successes.

And so is the program, Britton Baeza said.

Freshmen who earn fellowships have a graduation rate of 97 percent, an eye-popping figure for black and Hispanic youth and a figure that Britton Baeza trumpets.

For that number speaks to what a structured, comprehensive program can do for teenagers who might otherwise leave home for college without much structure in their lives and with zero guidance.

From this initial JRF Fellowship program has come Extra Innings, which takes those academic successes among the fellows and provides funding for their continuing education.

The financial underpinning for Extra Innings came from the Windmill Foundation, which pledged $500,000 if Britton Baeza and her JRF staff could raise a matching total. Through its network of JRF alumni, friends and corporate or institutional partners, the foundation did.

Since its "official" start in 2005, the Extra Innings program has seen applications more than double, and Britton Baeza said she sees no reason that interest in the program should wane, particularly with the emphasis the foundation puts on thinking in a global perspective.

"It's a well-oiled program," she said. "I've been here four years, so I can't take credit for a lot of what was architected before me, but it certainly works."

McGee agreed.

"My decision to go to graduate school was, in part, because of a person from the Jackie Robinson Foundation stressing the importance of continuing my education," she said. "My best friend is a Jackie Robinson scholar. My first employer came from the Jackie Robinson Foundation."

After she graduated from North Carolina A&T and picked up a master's at New Jersey Institute of Technology, McGee began bringing home a nice paycheck from Hewlett-Packard. But the message that had always been the linchpin for what JRF fellows stood for made her walk away from the dollars.

She felt she had a greater purpose in life: helping others.

"Yes, I was making a lot of money, but I wasn't impacting the lives of others," said McGee, an advocate for making mathematics more relevant across the cultural spectrum. "So that's the real reason why I decided to go back into education -- to do what I was passionate about, to do what I love."