COLLEGE PARK - When Jackie Wheeler took over a new program to give students at Baltimore's public high schools full scholarships to the University of Maryland, College Park, some said she wouldn't be able to find enough graduates qualified for admittance to the state's flagship university.
Then she ran into youngsters such as Sueling Poon-Ying, a senior at Northwestern High School whose parents emigrated from the Caribbean island of Trinidad six years ago. Poon-Ying, known to all as Nicole, works 20 hours a week at a nursing home, takes care of her two younger siblings and is about to graduate third in her class.
"When I heard I won this scholarship, I jumped up and down I was so excited," Poon-Ying said.
She is among the first nine Baltimore Incentive Awards Scholars, who were presented yesterday in a ceremony at the university president's house on the campus.
"All the students impressed me," said Wheeler. "But Nicole was the one who was most excited about the fact she was chosen. This is sincerely a life-changing experience for her. It's going to allow her to realize her potential."
UMCP President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. modeled the program on one he helped start at the University of California, Berkeley, which began by drawing students from San Francisco high schools and has expanded to other California communities.
Mote said it changed the way the San Francisco students viewed Berkeley, and vice versa.
The idea is to seek students who not only have solid academic credentials, but who also have severe financial need and have overcome adversity to make it through high school, showing resilience and leadership along the way.
"These kids faced obstacles, but they never want to be seen as victims," said Wheeler of the nine.
She pointed to Yavona Williams, an aspiring engineer who grew up in Cherry Hill and is graduating from City College.
"She was in a drug-infested, violence-ridden community, but she refused to succumb to some of the ills that surrounded her," Wheeler said. "Instead she used those experiences as a tool for personal growth and development."
At City College, Williams plays clarinet in the marching band, is top player on the badminton team and participates in teaching and tutoring activities. At home, she helps care for a young nephew and two cousins who live with her family.
"That's how you make it," she said. "You stay busy."
Her father, Larry Williams, who works at a Hecht Co. warehouse, credited his wife. "Education always came first," he said.
Cynthia Williams, who works for an optometrist, also praised teachers in Cherry Hill schools and after-school programs at recreation centers. "You have to keep on track," she said.
The Incentive Award scholars get a full ride - tuition, fees, room and board from UMCP - worth more than $10,000 a year. The CollegeBound Foundation, which supports college attendance by city school students, donated $600 a year for books.
Wheeler acknowledged that most of the students have academic credentials that are borderline for admission. Only Williams, who was admitted to the highly competitive Maryland Honors Program, has an SAT score above UMCP's average of about 1,200.
"You look for students who have done the best within the context of their environment," Wheeler said. "Then you expect them to do their best in this new environment."
Mote said there were initial doubts at Berkeley about students brought in by the program. "Their graduation rate was 100 percent," he said. "I'm sure the same thing is going to happen here."
The scholars from each school were chosen by a committee made up of Baltimore community leaders and Derrick Johnson, a 1994 Dunbar High School graduate who graduated from Maryland last year and works at the school. When he read about the program in an in-house publication, he called to see whether he could help and was put on the committee.
At Dunbar, he helped pick Joseph Robinson, who turned down an offer from the Johns Hopkins University to attend Maryland.
"Some of my friends who are going to college are going to places where they know they can do well," said Robinson, who plans to major in psychology. "I wanted a challenge; that's why I looked at schools like Hopkins and Maryland."
Johnson said growing up in the East Baltimore neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital, he saw a lot of kids fail to make it.
"Plenty went to prison, got involved in drugs," he said. "I was glad I made it out. I wanted to help some other people make it out."
Others receiving the award are Tiana Wynn of Polytechnic Institute, Reginald Jones III of Edmondson-Westside, Ebony Jamison of Northern, Essence Jordan of Southern, Myron Goldstein of Southwestern and Ima-Nkoyo Bassey of Western.