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Education provides a Chance to rise above

The Baltimore Sun

Erica Holland was in sixth grade when she asked a minority-program coordinator at Annapolis Middle School whether she knew of any good math camps.

"That's the only time a kid has ever asked if [she] could spend the summer doing math," said Shanita Spencer, now an AVID instructor at Annapolis High School.

Though she was living in subsidized housing, Holland had set her sights on an Ivy League education and decided that she needed to improve her math skills.

"Ever since I was young, I knew education was key to getting out," said Holland, now 18.

That drive and determination attracted not one but two mentors who helped steer Holland into a program that helps minorities obtain financial aid at prep schools and navigate college applications.

A Better Chance guided Holland to a prestigious college preparatory school in Baltimore County and a full ride at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will begin this fall.

Holland, an African-American, did so well in the minority leadership program that she will be one of two students speaking to other graduates of the program at a party June 24. A Better Chance also offered her a fall internship.

"She has been such a strong leader and been such a strong voice," said Keith Wilkerson, senior program coordinator for A Better Chance in Philadelphia. "She's the equivalent of a first-round draft choice."

Holland's parents, who never married, were teenagers when she was born. Erica, her older brother, Eric, and her younger sister, Martina, lived with their mother in the Bay Ridge Apartments. At times, they didn't have a phone. Once, they had no furniture for a while, when her mother's boyfriend left her.

Family members came and went. There always seemed to be arguments, Holland said.

Holland had a refuge in education. In the third grade, Holland became convinced that education was her ticket to a better life after she heard a speech by Dr. Ben Carson, a Johns Hopkins surgeon who rose from humble beginnings.

"I figured I could do that," Holland said. "I wanted to be the best and be in the best places."

Holland's voracious appetite for learning caught the attention of Spencer, a former securities lawyer who had sought a new career path in education. Spencer was the parent coordinator of GEAR UP at Annapolis Middle School, a federal program that helps low-income students prepare for higher education. The acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

Spencer helped Holland get into math camp. Holland began to drop by Spencer's office. It wasn't long before Spencer began looking out for her in other ways.

Spencer's own mentor couldn't resist helping Holland. Wendy Winters, a former dean at Smith College and Howard University, thought Holland would benefit if she could escape her chaotic home life to focus on her studies.

"She was just energy incarnate," Wilkerson said.

Holland missed the deadlines for getting into A Better Chance at the end of eighth grade. She attended her freshman year at Annapolis High School before being accepted into A Better Chance and Oldfields School in Glencoe.

A scholarship covered most of the tuition. Winters raised the remaining $5,000 Holland needed by writing to friends and family. She also created a trust fund for Holland, which paid for her expenses at Oldfields.

At first, Holland had trouble adjusting to life at the exclusive girls school about 20 miles north of Baltimore. Although the school prides itself on accepting a variety of students - from high achievers to those with learning disabilities - the school's cost puts it out of reach of most girls. Annual tuition this year for students who board is $37,400, according to the school's Web site. For day students, it is $23,400.

Holland said she felt out of place as other students talked about vacations and name-brand clothes. When classroom discussions turned to welfare policy and fighting poverty, the subject matter became personal.

"I felt I was a part of that," Holland said.

Gradually, it became easier for her to talk about those issues. "It doesn't hurt me as much," she said.

For Holland, race also was an issue. She came from Annapolis High School, which is about half white and half minority. At Oldfields, multicultural students make up 27 percent of the student body.

"There were a lot of really sheltered kids there who didn't interact with minorities," Holland said. "They wanted to touch your hair and feel your skin."

Holland and several other students from A Better Chance founded the Black Awareness Club at Oldfields. They also formed the Coalition of Respect for Community Diversity.

Their first diversity workshop in Holland's junior year raised a stir. In one exercise, Holland and other coalition members lined up classmates according to who seemed the wealthiest. Students felt uncomfortable, Holland said. Parents called administrators. They in turn spoke to Holland and the rest of the coalition.

"It was just to show people we all have prejudices," she said. "We didn't do something as intense as that" afterward.

Holland is introspective about those activities and how her perceptions changed. She used to think her privileged classmates were oblivious to the problems of the poor. Holland said she came to realize that she had grown up too fast.

"I didn't have that innocence as a child," she said. "I didn't realize that was actually a good thing."

Holland and two classmates, who also were in A Better Chance, attended the Goldman Sach's Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking in Philadelphia. They won first place for their plan to put inspirational messages for young women on T-shirts. They won second place in the institute's national competition in New York City, although they never started a business.

Holland also took part in the study abroad program offered by A Better Chance. She spent five weeks in Mexico improving her Spanish. She also volunteered for the Baltimore Girls' School Leadership Coalition.

During Holland's senior year, her half-brother, David Holland, died in a car accident in May at age 27.

Teachers said she took the blow hard but still finished the year second in her class of 38. She won the head of the school prize for her leadership skills in the community and took home the English department award. Holland also published the school's literary magazine, Tidbit.

In it she wrote a poem, "Hard Times," about her childhood and the admiration she has for her mother. "Good heart, Good mind. Your soul divine," Holland wrote.

Her mother, Martina Bais, is proud of that poem. She still can't believe that her daughter could go from lower-income Annapolis to the Ivy League.

"I never thought I would have the ability to do that," Bais said. "I just thank God for the people" who helped her go there.

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