"At least at my school," says Melanie Carr, 17, "I was if not the only one, one of the only three blacks in higher classes."
The women around the circle nod. They know what she is talking about.
Newly graduated from high school, they are incoming freshmen in the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The 3-year-old scholarship program brings together top-notch black students from all over Maryland to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Most have grown up accustommed to being standouts -- not only because of their accomplishments, but also because of their race.
But they spent six weeks this summer spent talking, studying and living with one another in a foretaste of what the Meyerhoff program is all about. And by the time the summer "bridge" program ended Friday, students like Melanie had discovered that they are not alone.
"It makes you more comfortable," says Melanie, who worked on the school paper, ran track and field, was a member of the political science club and president of the National Honor Society at Randallstown High School in Baltimore County. "It makes you feel you're not the only one. It gives me a lot of hope."
Meyerhoff scholars receive full four-year scholarships, a personal computer, an annual $1,000 stipend and academic support. They take part in cultural and career activities and summer internships. In exchange for these benefits, the scholars pledge to go on to seek medical degrees or doctorates in the sciences.
The 35 scholars starting college this fall include football stars and musicians; a tennis champ; math whizzes who fell just 20 or 30 points short of a perfect score on their SATs; youngsters who turned down Wellesley College, Yale University, Stanford, Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University, Duke University and a host of other schools to come to UMBC.
Not all did it because they chose to -- some were influenced by parents or by financial constraints. But most agree that the program has introduced them to a new resource: one another.
In the past six weeks, the scholars have sweated out math problems, studied chemistry and read seven books and a score of pamphlets -- most having to do with their African-American heritage. They went on field trips and met in groups to talk over issues with the program coordinators and with the program director, UMBC Executive Vice President Freeman A. Hrabowski III.
Then, when the school day was over, they stayed up until 2 a.m. -- just talking. What did they talk about? Everything, says Shelby Wallace of Lanham.
Derrick Tucker of Capitol Heights and Tyrone Lindsey Jr. of Clinton got so excited about these conversations that one night they wrote up a bunch of questions and put them in a bag. Everybody got together and took turns answering such questions as:
What age should you get married and why?
How many children should you have and why?
If someone offered you $10 million to never go to college, would you accept? How important is money?
"In our high schools we weren't exposed to a lot of black people our age with the credentials we had," Shelby Wallace says. "It's probably something we all missed in high school, this kinship."
Denise Richardson, 18, recalls that at Atholton High School in Columbia she was one of only 76 black students in a student body of 1,100. "I didn't really feel uncomfortable there," she says. "But I didn't really like it that much. It was just if you were black and you were in the highest classes, you were an outcast. If you wanted to fit in, you had to act like you didn't know anything."
Not so here. For youngsters who often felt isolated among their black peers because of their achievements and among white peers because of their race, the Meyerhoff program is a kind of haven. "I can talk to anybody here, knowing that they just won't judge me," says Angela Hodge, 17, of Upper Marlboro.
Some time later, she is recalling an intense discussion the scholars had about black culture. Angela maintains that there is no one black culture. Her friend and fellow scholar, Tijuana Patty, also 17, eyes her wryly.
"We all give Angela a little tolerance leeway," Tijuana says. "Angela has not been exposed to black culture. It's just a joke, but we're teaching Angela to be black." Angela laughs.
This kind of easy camaraderie is obvious when the students get together -- for their regular rap sessions, to hang out, or to watch Dr. Hrabowski, the man who recruited most of them, play tennis with Howard County singles champion and Meyerhoff scholar Susan Clanzy.
"She's going to whip my butt," Dr. Hrabowski tells everyone who will listen on his way to the tennis court, sounding much like a proud father. A group of Meyerhoffers gathering to watch the match smile tolerantly.
Dr. Hrabowski started the program in 1988 with a grant from TTC Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, who was concerned about reports that more black males were going to prison than to college. The first scholars all were male, but the program was expanded in its second year to include women. Students are selected based on grades and SAT scores.
A black mathematician himself, Dr. Hrabowski hopes the Meyerhoff scholars will prove to be an antidote to the problem of black advancement in the sciences. Last year, blacks earned only one percent of the 9,736 doctorates awarded in the country in engineering and the sciences.
The prospects seem bright. The Meyerhoff program boasts a 100 percent retention rate and grade point averages between 3.2 and 3.5.
And the class of 1995 has great ambitions. They plan to be doctors and scholars and lawyers and businessmen -- or all of those things at once.
When they get their degrees, they plan to form the Meyerhoff Alumni Association to pay for more Meyerhoff scholars. Concerned about the disintegration they see and read about among black Americans, they plan to beat the odds.
"All of us realize that we have this certain ability," says Crystal Watkins of Timonium. "I think we all deep inside feel like we have to succeed not only to pull ourselves up, but to pull the race together."
And Shelby Wallace says: "Chris and Eric and I were talking about what if all the Meyerhoffs, once we got our degrees, got together and made the Meyerhoff world? . . . The world as it should be."