“I Have a Dream” Scholarships

  • Education
  • 1981

Eugene Lang attended the East Harlem elementary school P.S. 121 back in the 1930s. He went on to Swarthmore College on a scholarship, and then Columbia and Brooklyn Polytechnic for additional studies. His education helped him become wealthy running manufacturing businesses. After agreeing to speak to graduating sixth graders at P.S. 121 in 1981, he arrived intending to tell them that with enough hard work they could be as successful as he had been. Then just before he spoke the principal pointed out that, as a statistical matter, a majority of the students he would be addressing were unlikely to graduate from high school. Improvising his commencement speech on the spot, Lang told the 61 assembled sixth graders and their families that if they successfully completed high school, he would personally provide college tuition costs. Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, which he had seen delivered in 1963, Lang encouraged the students to aim high with the knowledge that financial obstacles would not obstruct their education.

When the high-school graduation date of the P.S. 121 “Dreamers” drew near, Lang’s promise attracted wide public attention. He had launched efforts to support the children he addressed, and more than 80 percent eventually earned diplomas, with 32 children pursuing higher education, and almost all acquiring fulfilling jobs. To spread his promise beyond East Harlem, Lang established the “I Have a Dream” Foundation in 1986. It has provided tuition assistance to more than 15,000 students through affiliates across the country. Lang’s total gifts to education exceed $150 million. His experiences inspired many other philanthropic acts, including financier Paul Tudor Jones’s creation in 1988 of the extraordinarily successful New York City charity known as the Robin Hood Foundation.