Thousands of college students across the state received their degrees yesterday and were challenged by commencement speakers to confront the nation's troubles by becoming freedom fighters for civil rights and defenders of the sick and hungry.
At Morgan State University, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the new executive director of the NAACP, urged 800 graduates at the school's football stadium to "uplift the downtrodden people, the brothers and sisters who have been victims of racial discrimination."
At the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's nominee for U.S. surgeon general, told graduates they must convince politicians that disease prevention is the future of U.S. health care -- especially for children who are being treated like "biodegradeable trash."
And Bea Gaddy, an advocate for the homeless in Baltimore, was given an honorary doctorate in humane letters by Towson State University yesterday evening following a standing ovation in the Towson Center. She urged graduates "not to live secluded and self-contained lives" but to reach out to meaningfully help society's needy.
Dr. Elders, a pediatric endocrinologist who is the Arkansas state health director, said the graduate students must persuade the "power brokers" of this country to attack the problems of poverty, overpopulation and pollution.
She condemned previous U.S. health policy for relegating too many children to poverty and spending too much on the dying and not enough on nutrition and disease prevention.
By 2030, "40 percent of children born in America will be poor," she told the 338 graduates, who come from 47 foreign countries and the United States.
"We are throwing our children away. Who is going to take care of us when we're 85 -- the same children we're throwing away?" she said.
She also warned that it won't be easy convincing the "power brokers" that disease prevention is the key to solving health problems.
"Politicians [won't] buy prevention because they won't get brownie points next week. It can take 10 years to see the effect," she said.
Morgan State University
Mr. Chavis told graduates how his father gave him a membership card for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when he was 12 years old.
The card inspired him to go to the whites-only public library for a book that still had both covers attached.
When he asked whether he could take out the book, the librarian "called the police."
His parents arrived -- along with the police -- and "my mother and father stuck with me and we integrated the local library. That night I could hardly sleep. I was fired up," he said.
Years later, Mr. Chavis spent 4 1/2 years in a North Carolina prison following a civil rights demonstration. His conviction was later overturned.
Yesterday, he urged Morgan graduates to choose their life goals wisely and said that although the civil rights movement has made progress, there is "still . . . a mighty long way to go."
"Be freedom fighters," he told them.
Towson State University
Towson's graduates received degrees in afternoon and evening ceremonies.
In the early session, among the 2,055 students receiving degrees was Ann S. Griffiths, who received her master's in liberal arts at the age of 80.
"The whole experience has been very stimulating, and I've made lot of new friends, but I am glad it's over," she said as she prepared to join the procession of graduates thronging the Towson Center.
With bachelor's and master's degrees to her credit, Mrs. Griffiths said her new goal is to become a political speech writer, "preferably at the congressional level."
She wasn't certain how she would approach the job market, but she has considered "just offering my services for free" to a candidate.
The Towson resident said she decided to embark on a college education about seven years ago, after her husband died.
A graduate of Eastern High School, she had dreamed of attending Goucher College and discovered the college had a program for adults who had been out of school for more than five years.
Mrs. Griffiths graduated with honors from Goucher with a degree in political science and was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa.
"I guess I get a lot of attention because of my age. But I've found age does not have to be a bar to anything. It's never to late for learning," Mrs. Griffiths said.
"One thing I've come to like is the fact that I'm sort of a role model for people that you don't have to just sit around when you get old. You can participate in life."
At the University of Maryland Baltimore County's commencement, more than 1,600 graduates -- including the first six participants in the Meyerhoff Program, which financially assists black students gifted in science or math -- received degrees at the Baltimore Arena.
Among the six Meyerhoff graduates was Eric Brown of Anne Arundel County, who had planned to attend Stanford on a partial scholarship before being wooed to UMBC.
Yesterday, after receiving his bachelor of science degree, he had no regrets about the decision.
"The program has a lot of energy and dynamics," said Mr. Brown, who has been accepted with a full scholarship to Princeton University's doctoral program in History of Science.
"I found pooling intelligent black males into a program was important to who I was, and I wanted to achieve in my studies. The program's not just producing scientists, but people who want to make a positive contribution to their communities and the world."
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the recently named president of UMBC, who helped found the scholarship program in 1989, was particularly proud of his first crop of Meyerhoff graduates.
"We don't have enough Afro-American scientists and engineers in our society. Fewer than 2 percent of blacks are earning Ph.D.s in sciences, engineering or math. This program will change that.
"Today it's not considered popular to be a high achieving black. But these students well be good role models for others to feel good about being bright and black."
The six Meyerhoff Program graduates -- Mr. Brown, Derek Harley, Chester Hedgepeth III, Charles Hines III, Ahmad Ridley and Maceo Thomas -- had a combined grade point average of 3.4. They were among the 19 students accepted in the program when it was launched in 1989. To date, none of the Meyerhoff scholars has dropped out.
All six of yesterday's program graduates have been accepted to science or math doctoral programs at major universities, including Princeton, Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
All of the graduates have been notified that they will receive at least some financial assistance.
For example, Mr. Ridley, who grew up in a single-parent home in the poor neighborhood of Harlem Park in West Baltimore, has been accepted in the University of Maryland's Ph.D. Program in Applied Mathematics and will receive tuition assistance. And Mr. Hedgepeth, a Salisbury native, has been accepted at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine M.D./Ph.D. Program. He plans to study molecular biology.
The Meyerhoff program was started with the aid of Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, a noted art collector, horse breeder and developer.
A Washington College graduate who was unsure how she would repay her student loans said she was "stunned" at yesterday's commencement ceremony when she was named winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, a cash award totaling $23,708 this year, in recognition of literary promise.
"I really didn't expect to win it," said a dazed Erin Page, whose poems and short stories were praised by members of the small, private college's English department as the best creative writing in the senior class.
Ms. Page, a 21-year-old English major from Putney, Vt., said she began writing fiction when she was a child and concentrated on poetry and short stories during her four years at college in Chestertown, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Bennett J. Lamond, chairman of the English department, called Ms. Page's poetry "powerful stuff, very dark and very disturbing." And Robert P. Day, an English professor and head of the school's creative writing program, said Ms. Page's diversity in writing style was "kind of a startling thing to see."
"If I could write poems like that," said Mr. Day, "I'd give up my tenure."
Ms. Page, who also graduated with academic honors, said she had been accepted into the Peace Corps before her graduation but was undecided about what she would do -- mostly because she wanted to pay back her college loans.
The annual tax-free award that will help her was first given by the college in 1968, three years after novelist and Eastern Shore native Sophie Kerr died and left it about $500,000. Half of the annual interest from the endowment is earmarked for the prize; the remaining funds are used by the English department to bolster lecture and writing programs.
Washington College conferred 187 bachelor of arts degrees and 13 bachelor of science degrees.
Commencement speaker Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor for investigative reporting at the Washington Post, advised the graduates to "be poor for a while . . . be lonely for a while" before they commit themselves to a career. Once they find a niche, he said, they should remember, "All work is done in defiance of management."