Georgia Impact

Gift to UGA leadership initiative named for former gymnastics coach

Suzanne Yoculan1
Suzanne Yoculan

Athens, Ga. – A $500,000 gift to the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia will create the Suzanne Yoculan Leebern Fund to support students through the Embark program.

The gift, made by UGA alumnus and University System of Georgia Board of Regents member Don Leebern Jr., specifically will provide support for UGA students who have been orphaned, placed in foster care, are under court protection or legal guardianship, or who are identified as homeless.

“Students in these situations have faced significant obstacles in their lives and, impressively, have attained the academic credentials to attend the University of Georgia,” said Suzanne Yoculan Leebern. “We wanted them to have somewhere to turn for help.”

Funds can be used for orientation expenses, meal plans, travel, housing, furnishings, books, supplies, social opportunities, campus mentoring, emergencies/crises or any other expense deemed appropriate by the director of the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of the Office of Public Service and Outreach.

“Don and Suzanne are both longtime friends of the university, and I am pleased they are helping us to increase funding and leadership development opportunities for this deserving group of students,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “Their generous gift will help the university to ensure that talented students from all backgrounds have the support they need to succeed at UGA and beyond.”

Embark, a program within the Fanning Institute, provides leadership training throughout the state for students who are homeless or who have been in foster care and have no immediate support system.

These students face significant challenges when pursuing a postsecondary education due to diminished access to financial resources, instability while in high school and significantly reduced social capital. Students who are able to enroll in a postsecondary educational institution have earned the credentials against great odds and represent the future leaders of Georgia. The vision of Embark is that any person who has experienced foster care or homelessness will have ample academic, financial, social and emotional support to access, navigate and complete a postsecondary education.

“We are very appreciative of the Leeberns’ gift to support the Embark program,” said Matt Bishop, director of the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. “The gift allows us to further our leadership development work with students here at UGA who are aging out of foster care.”

Statistics bear out the need for the Embark program. In Georgia more than 11,000 children currently live in foster care. In fiscal year 2014, the last year for which data are available, more than 30,000 students in K-12 schools in Georgia were identified as homeless. Studies show a majority of youths in foster care would like to pursue postsecondary education, but only 20 percent actually enroll.

Identification can be challenging, and it is difficult to determine accurately how many students enrolled at UGA or at other USG institutions meet the criteria for Embark. Based on data collected from the Free Application for Student Aid, about 240 undergraduate students who enrolled in fall 2014 or fall 2015 identified themselves as orphaned, placed in foster care, under court protection or legal guardianship, or homeless.

For more information on the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, see