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The idea of creating a fellowship based upon a self-designed program of travel and learning was conceived in 1960 by Amory Houghton, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Corning Glass Works. He worked in collaboration with J. Leslie Rollings, Dean of Admissions at the Harvard Business School, and John H. Finley, Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard College.

They believed that most of the existing fellowships favored students interested primarily in post-graduate academic pursuits. No fellowship, in their view, fully challenged a candidate's ability to propose and undertake a post-graduate learning experience largely of the student's making. Such a learning experience would be a valuable complement to the relatively formalized character of the undergraduate program.

The Corning Fellowship program expanded in several stages to include students from Yale, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and North Carolina, in addition to Harvard. Competition was keen among the applicants from all five of these universities. The Corning fellows spent a year traveling around the world. No two programs were alike. As a group, the fellows compiled a remarkable record of accomplishment in politics, law, business, and other fields.

Corning Glass saw its role as innovator and creator, yet not as the source of on-going support. Funding ceased in 1968. Nearly ten years later, the former fellows established the Corning Fellows Association, Inc. and Michael Ainslie, a Vanderbilt alumnus, was elected president of the group.

The goal of the Association was to challenge the universities that had previously participated in the Corning program to establish programs of their own. They took this action because they felt that the traveling fellowship had been one of the most important experiences in their lives.

The World Trade Council of Middle Tennessee and alumni contributions have allowed the University to award this fellowship only on an intermittent basis from 1998 through 2004. In 2003, Michael B. Keegan, the 1980 Traveling Fellow offered to fund the 2004 award and to secure an endowment that would guarantee this program on an annual basis. In recognition of this commitment to the program and to Vanderbilt University, the program has been renamed in Michael Keegan's honor.

The current award is $20,000 per year.