“When most people see young black men walking across a college campus, they are likely to think, ‘There goes the basketball team.’ We want them to think, ‘There goes the chemistry honor society.'”
President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
FROM FREEMAN’S ORIGINAL ENTRY:
What needed an overhaul?
There is a critical shortage of minorities pursuing research careers in science. Only 2% of doctorate degrees in math, science and engineering go to African Americans. When most people see a group of young black men walking across a college campus, they are likely to think “There goes the basketball team.” We want them to think, “There goes the chemistry honors society.”
What was the single biggest obstacle?
We live in a society that holds athletes and entertainers in the highest regard, but labels smart kids as “nerds” and “geeks.” Those with the brain power to make it to the best colleges are often sidetracked before they have a chance to succeed. We need to provide smart, successful role models for children and give them a reason to earn As. We do not have a football team at UMBC, but we are the national chess champions–and proud of it. We have created an atmosphere where it is cool to be smart.
How did you overcome it?
In 1988, with the support of Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, we created a scholarship program to support talented African-American males interested in pursuing Ph.D., M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degrees. We have since expanded the program to students of all backgrounds who have an interest in addressing the underrepresentation of minorities in the sciences. We recruit the best students and provide them with the support to ensure that they not only receive As, but high As. We have created an atmosphere where it is cool to be smart, to have high academic aspirations. The sky is the limit.
How have you seen results?
More than 250 Meyerhoff Scholars have graduated from UMBC, nearly 90% of whom have gone on to pursue advanced degrees at many of the top institutions–Harvard, Yale, Staford, Duke, among others. Chester Hedgepeth, a member of the first class of Meyerhoff Scholars, was one of the first two African-American men to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s M.D./Ph.D. program. When you consider that each year only about ten African Americans earn advanced degrees in such areas as computer science, it is clear that each and every Meyerhoff scholar has the potential to be influential in science.