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MIT Better World

By Kris Willcox

Her belief in the power of education, passed on by multiple generations of her family, inspired her to create the Kennard Reeves Scholarship Fund, which supports African American students at MIT.

Lydia, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from MIT, is proud to steward the fund with her daughter, Marlyse Reeves ’17, SM ’20, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Marlyse conducts research at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, where she is a member of the Model-Based Embedded and Robotics Systems group.

Inspired by family

Lydia came to MIT to pursue her dream of a career in real estate development and urban planning. “I studied with amazing MIT faculty like Larry Bacow and Larry Susskind.” In addition to her MIT degree, she holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a JD from Harvard Law School. Prior to founding KDG, she was executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the country’s second-largest airport system. She says the most influential mentors in her life are family members, including her maternal grandfather, who earned his college degree at the turn of the 20th century—an incredible achievement, she notes, for an African American man of his time. Lydia’s mother graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and her father from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.

She remembers hearing stories about her father receiving invitations for interviews at architecture firms based on his outstanding portfolio, only to be turned away when they realized he was African American. Despite such barriers, he went on to establish his own firm, the renowned Kennard Design Group, of which Lydia’s company is an outgrowth.

“It’s amazing how much the world has changed,” Lydia observes, “and yet, in so many ways, it hasn’t. The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that there’s still a lot of work to be done.” Creating more educational opportunities for African-American students through scholarships is an important part of that work, she says.

“No one has to fundamentally change who they are to fit in”

“My mom taught me that you can have a successful career and a family—a full, complete life,” says Marlyse Reeves. MIT has been Marlyse’s home for nearly a decade, as she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is now pursuing her doctorate at the Institute.

“My favorite thing about MIT, hands down, is the people that I’ve met here,” she says. “No one has to fundamentally change who they are to fit in. There’s room for everyone and every interest.” Her own interests range widely, from research in autonomous systems and robotics to a startup she recently cofounded that employs artificial intelligence to create custom hair and beauty products. She is also proud to be a lead mentor with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (better known as FIRST), an organization that engages young people in science and robotics. “Mentoring young women—especially young women of color—in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] is something I’m really passionate about,” she says.

“One of the exceptional things about MIT is its egalitarian nature,” says Lydia. “It’s really a meritocracy, and you feel that on campus.” Through the Kennard Reeves fund, Lydia and Marlyse see an opportunity to provide the material and personal encouragement that can transform lives, increasing diversity at MIT and beyond.

Meeting recipients of the family’s scholarship has been gratifying, both mother and daughter say. “The cool thing for me,” says Marlyse, “is to see the different paths these students are taking and how they’re finding what it is they’re really passionate about.”

One of Lydia’s greatest joys is to see her children—both Marlyse and Bryson, a dedicated athlete who was recently recruited by the University of Utah’s football team—committing themselves to their own dreams. She has similar hopes for the recipients of the Kennard Reeves Scholarship: “My desire is for them to be successful, to fully leverage the MIT experience, and to take the investment they’re making in themselves really seriously.” Finally, she hopes that each student will find unique ways to give back, creating opportunities for others. “That’s an obligation we all have to one another.”