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It’s time to expand affordable high-quality higher ed at places like UMBC that have a proven track | COMMENTARY

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, receives a Moderna mRNA Covid-19 vaccine as a participant in a clinical trial at University of Maryland School of Medicine
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, receives a Moderna mRNA Covid-19 vaccine as a participant in a clinical trial at University of Maryland School of Medicine

President Joe Biden stood on the inaugural platform at the Capitol and pointed to urgent challenges that we must “step up” to address, from the pandemic to systemic racism and growing inequality. Tackling those challenges will take hard work, innovation and a new generation of diverse leaders. From our experiences, we know higher education is essential to this goal — especially public higher education, where most graduates receive their degrees.

From the minute we stepped onto UMBC’s campus years ago, we had access to mentors who believed steadfastly in our ability to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, and to lead and support others in doing the same. They had enormous dreams for us before we even had such dreams for ourselves, and they gave us the tools we needed to achieve them.

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When I was deciding where to attend college, the late LaMont Toliver, former director of UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, convinced me that I’d find a diverse community of students ready to excel at UMBC. His unwavering support continued throughout my time on campus, and his encouragement to attend Meharry Medical College set me on my path. Years later, this steadfast support continued as UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski stepped up to write a letter of recommendation as I sought the Baltimore City Health commissioner position, ultimately enabling me to work today with Mayor Brandon Scott in addressing urgent health equity issues in our city.

And long before my husband, Delali, was the founder and CEO of Fearless, a digital services company, he was a student at UMBC, excited to be in an intensely fun and caring community where diversity was valued and where it was cool to be smart. UMBC is where he became an entrepreneur. It’s where he met his business partner, John Foster, and where he later turned to get his company off the ground, through the bwtech@UMBC business incubator.

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None of that would have been possible without the leadership and collaboration skills he gained in student government, or without President Hrabowski, who connected him with business mentors.

The nation recently witnessed the talent UMBC turns out when graduate Kizzmekia Corbett administered the Moderna COVID vaccine to Vice President Kamala Harris, who called her a “superhero” for leading the National Institutes of Health team that developed the vaccine.

A few months earlier, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and his wife, Jacqueline, joined the Moderna vaccine trial, leading Dr. Corbett to tweet that it was the sort of support she’d come to know from UMBC’s leadership: “When you recruit a high school girl to your university and tell her to hold fast to dreams, you SUPPORT the dreams”, she wrote.

We know firsthand what that kind of support from UMBC feels like and what it makes possible.

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Our mentors didn’t just help us out of altruism. They knew that achieving success for ourselves, our city, our institutions and our state is only possible when we invest in the success of others. This is the UMBC culture: success by lifting each other up, with each class elevating the next.

Dr. Corbett has carried on this spirit of service, mutual support and mentorship, as have many other UMBC grads who have contributed to the pandemic response. This includes people like Sasha McGee, senior infectious disease epidemiologist at the Washington D.C. Department of Health; Kaitlyn Sadtler, chief of the Section for Immunoengineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; John Jackson, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health here in Baltimore; and prior U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

And for each of these nationally known scientists, there are thousands of talented, skilled graduates across many fields quietly working hard to make a difference in labs, classrooms, offices and communities across Maryland and beyond. Their work will be essential to our recovery from this pandemic and the economic and social challenges it has exacerbated.

We are inspired to be in the company of people who are both so gifted and giving. Investing our time in supporting students, young professionals and entrepreneurs is something we both do because it brings us joy. It’s also something we need to encourage more of as a state and nation.

To heal our communities after this pandemic, we must “step up” to expand affordable, high quality higher education in Maryland, at places like UMBC that have a proven track record of supporting students of all backgrounds. Producing scientists, health care providers, social workers, teachers and entrepreneurs takes resources, but it’s an investment Maryland needs.

Letitia Dzirasa (letitia.dzirasa@baltimorecity.gov) is Baltimore City health commissioner. Delali Dzirasa (ddzirasa@fearless.tech) is founder and CEO of Fearless. Both are graduates of UMBC.

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