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At UMBC, Meyerhoff program is a hit


At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, executive vice president Freeman A. Hrabowski is leafing through student transcripts belonging to the school's Meyerhoff Scholars.

Through this program, UMBC provides full, four-year scholarships to outstanding black high school students in science and math, with the expectation that they eventually will seek advanced degrees in those critical fields.

The goal is to provide the kind of financial and spiritual support black students rarely receive on a predominantly white campus.

And to date, the program has achieved phenomenal success and is enjoying national acclaim.

But Dr. Hrabowski is trying to explain that such success is neither automatic nor easy. "Now here's a student who was enrolled in the course and started falling behind," said Dr. Hrabowski, studying one transcript.

"And honestly, he was embarrassed to say anything about it. That's one of the problems you get with students. The key is we try to get students to tell us up front when they have problems, whether they are planning to withdraw from a class, or need extra tutoring.

"Well, this student just didn't take some of his classes seriously. He had no idea they would be so difficult. He was a high school student with a high Scholastic Aptitude Test score. Very good grades. But the school just wasn't rigorous enough and he didn't know how hard he would have to work to make it here.

"So we had to sit down with him," Dr. Hrabowski continues. "We had to call attention to his performance in some of the group meetings. And look at the result this semester: he has an 'A' in computer science; an 'A' in physics; a 'B' in Calculus 2. Overall, he's got a 3.29 grade point average and he appears to be back on track."

Of the 72 scholars admitted into the program, only two have changed to a non-science major. The group has maintained above a 3.4 grade point average. The top student, Ahmad Ridley, had maintained a 4.0 average entering his junior year last fall.

By next semester, there will be more than 100 scholars on campus. Before then, UMBC had graduated just seven black students in the math or sciences over the past 10 years.

Meyerhoff Scholars receive full, four-year scholarships, plus money for their books, a personal computer and software, and paid summer internships.

Yet virtually everyone connected with the program agrees that the true key to students' success is that they are encouraged to think of themselves as a team.

"The philosophy," said Dr. Hrabowski, "is very much that the failure of one becomes the failure of all. The success of an individual means the entire group is successful. Thus, people who are successful in one class have a responsibility to work with someone who isn't doing well in that class. It is a team effort."

The scholars have frequent group sessions during the year, during which students are encouraged to share their campus triumphs and failures with the others. Starting with their first summer on campus, they are introduced to their professors and counselors so that they will feel comfortable with them when the school year starts. They are required to take at least one black studies course and they attend several cultural events during the year.

The program was launched in 1988 with a $522,000 grant from Robert Meyerhoff, a local developer and philanthropist who had wanted to do something to help disadvantaged black males embark upon careers in math and the sciences.

Since that first year, it has expanded to include women and it has attracted support from a wide range of public and private institutions, including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Apple Computers and the National Security Agency. Financial support has been such that UMBC has been able to establish a $1-million endowment fund, ensuring the program's future.

Meanwhile, UMBC researchers are using the pool of talented young black students to find out what makes them so successful.

"There is virtually nothing in the literature that says what makes the difference," said Dr. Joyce Ingram, a member of the research team. "People are trying to put together programs, respond to the crisis (of low achievement among black children), without really knowing what works and what doesn't."

Although the study is not yet complete, Dr. Ingram said the Meyerhoff students share a few common denominators.

Many of them are either only children or the oldest in their family, Dr. Ingram said. They tend to be voracious readers and they come from families that place a strong emphasis on spiritual values.

On the other hand, they also come from the entire range of socio-economic backgrounds, from single parent families to families where both parents are college educated. The majority of the scholars come from Maryland. However, as word of the program spreads, UMBC has begun to get applications from bright black students from all over the country.

"There simply isn't another program like this in the country," said Dr. Ingram. "We now have the highest number of high-achieving black math and science students in the nation."

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