Here's what UMD needs to do to help more black students attend and succeed

The reason there’s a disparity between the percentage of black students who graduate high school in Maryland and the percentage that end up in University of Maryland’s freshman class is social stratification (“Black student enrollment lags at University of Maryland,” Jan. 29). It’s the same reason there’s a disparity between those who know what that term refers to and those who don’t. It’s the same reason there’s an income disparity and a wealth disparity and a disparity between those who were taught the difference and those who were not.

Think about all of the different high school experiences possible for a black student learning in the state of Maryland. There are those who come to school and know that they are supported, they know that their teachers care and are devoted to helping them realize their full potential. Their school community is functional and provides a safe learning environment they can strive in. Then there are those who come to school and have to wait in line to go through a metal detector before coming to class. They are taught simply to regurgitate what they’ve learned and constantly reminded that their teacher “gets paid either way” whether they learn or not.

Some students can walk into their guidance counselor’s office and set out a clear plan for their future and have the opportunity to share that plan with their academic adviser while other students don’t even know what an academic adviser does and are told “I don’t have time for this” before they walk through the guidance suite door. There are some students who get to learn outside the realm of academia. Those who have the opportunity to have a dance teacher, a debate team, a robotics club and at the very least an art class where crayons and colored pencils aren’t the only tools available. Then there are some students who don’t even know what an “elective” is, and even if they did there’s no money in the budget for it anyway. There are schools with two different swimming pools, a fitness center and a state of the art audiovisual studio built simply for morning news productions. Then there are schools where something as simple as heat doesn’t even make the cut and students have to sit in classrooms with their coats on (“Baltimore teachers must commit to not accepting unacceptable circumstances,” Jan. 25).

Most importantly, there are students who are taught to care and those who are not. I say taught because no one enters this world knowing the importance of education, tertiary education specifically. You learn to care through experiences and examples, what you see around you and the impact it makes. Everyone is capable, but how those capabilities are cultivated makes the difference. I was pushed to be successful and to never settle and the people around me led by example. I was taught that I could set my own standard. Even though I may not be granted the same opportunities or learn at the same pace, I’m still learning and growing based on my personal abilities, and once I was able to understand that, I leaned how to push myself. I went through major setbacks, but over the years I watched the resilience and determination of those around me and mirrored that in my own life.

The fact that I had something positive to pull from is a part of how I was accepted to the University of Maryland, as an Incentive Awards Scholar no less. At the heart of the Incentive Awards Program is the development of individual character and community responsibility within an intimate community of staff, peers, advisers and mentors. They offer full financial support to the University of Maryland to exceptional students who demonstrate academic ability, uncommon persistence and maturity in the face of very difficult circumstances; difficult circumstances such as the disparity between Baltimore City where I went to high school and other communities in Maryland. The Incentive Awards Program looks this disparity in the face and tackles it head on, leveling the playing field for those disparity affects the most. They give students a chance to flourish in life, students who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity. They understand the importance this circumstance plays in the identities of the students they build up.

Although there’s still a disparity between the percentage of black students who graduate high school in Maryland and the percentage of those make up University of Maryland’s freshman class, the Incentive Awards Program consistently works to combat this, and I’m proud to be a part of something so amazing. I just wish more kids like me took advantage of this opportunity.

Amari Harris, College Park

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