7Beating the Odds: Preparing Minorities for Research Careers in the Chemical Sciences

Publication Details

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

You have already heard about the best part of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) today during Michael Summers' presentation (Chapter 5). Mike is my hero, and he helps me tremendously as we work to bring about change on our campus. This is why: The only time anything changes at a university is when people really want to have change. You must have people who are true believers, who are respected by others, and who can work to build enthusiasm for an idea.

Michael Summers has done this for a number of people—leading the way and showing not only what the rewards of helping minorities to succeed can be, but making it clear that their success is possible. He has proven that you can be a first-rate scientist and a superb educator, while at the same time making sure that large numbers of women and minorities are succeeding. It can happen!

The Meyerhoff Program has already been described (Chapter 5), and you have heard that the program is successful. Robert Lichter of The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation is on the Meyerhoff Program's board and has been very helpful to us. Clifton Poodry of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) immediately came over to me when he saw me, and, in the spirit of the best defense is an offense, he said, “I don't have any money.” He knew that before the night was over, I would ask him for more money. I have no shame. I have to ask. A day without asking is like a day without sunshine. We never get enough money. We need much more money. He knows this. Actually, I told him that I would not be asking for money tonight. Instead, I want to acknowledge and thank the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the members of their staffs for what they do to support the Meyerhoff Program.

When we talk about the issues involving participation of women and minorities in chemistry, and in science generally, we need to make sure that we have a lot of white males around. The power in our country, whether we are talking about companies or universities, still rests primarily with white males. Unless we can change the hearts and minds and thinking of those in power, what we do will continue to be at the edge. For example, I have seen Michael Summers stand in front of a group of black parents of very high-achieving students and say, “We have a problem in health care involving minorities. This is what it is for blacks, this is what it is for Latinos, and this is what it is for whites.” There is a power imbalance, which is why Michael Summers looks such parents in the eye and says, “If you don't solve it, if you don't get involved in research, who will? If your child does not do it, who will?”

It is a powerful message that takes courage to deliver. When he first did it, I was afraid that the parents were going to get up and say he was racist. But he was telling the truth. If we are going to make a difference, if we are going to change things, we must be willing to tell the truth. Sometimes we must be willing to say things that make others uncomfortable, not because we are trying to push them into a corner or against the wall, but because we have to get them to think about the issues differently. If we do not bring about this change in thinking, 25 years from now we will still be sitting here saying, “We do not have any blacks on most of the chemistry faculties of research campuses in this country.”

Although companies may be doing a better job than universities in recruiting, companies are still falling short, and they need to do better. We know the demographics. We know that if we are going to be competitive as a nation, we have to talk about the impact of changing demographics in this country.

I want to share a variety of stories with you this evening. It occurred to me that I actually took my first chemistry course in 1964, the summer before my 11th grade year. My mother sent me from Birmingham—where I could not go to school with white kids—to Springfield, Massachusetts, where I had a godmother, to give me a chance to see what it was like to be in class with whites.

I always thought I was the smartest kid who ever lived. I was taught to believe that. My parents pushed me on that because they wanted to counter the idea that I was a second-class citizen. I had gone to jail with Dr. King. I was in the civil rights movement. I led a group of children to jail. I was empowered to do that. I really did feel that I could do anything.

I wanted to see if it was true that white kids knew more than I knew because I kept hearing that in different ways: I had been given books second hand from white schools as a child, and my parents explained to me why that was. So they went out and bought books so that I would not have to use the books that had been given to us second hand from the white schools. My parents did everything they could to help me feel special, which is important for anybody to do well.

At the school in Massachusetts, I expected people to welcome me with open arms in algebra II, chemistry, and literature courses—but nobody ever spoke to me. A few would smile, but they were very uncomfortable. I was the only black, and the teacher never called on me. The first week, I raised my hand every day. I knew the answer, but I was ignored. Southerners are different from people in New England. Southerners are effusive. We are emotional. The New Englanders were much more stoic, and they said “five,” not “fahve.” So, the first thing I had to do was learn how to say “nine,” not “nahn.”

I learned more chemistry in those eight weeks than we covered the entire year in my chemistry course back in Birmingham that next year. It was a powerful lesson for me because I had very dedicated teachers in Birmingham. The chemistry teacher was excellent, and he taught as much as he could, given the background of the students in the class. Do you see my point? There were people who left his chemistry class and went on to places and became physicians, but many others knew very little at the end of the class. He gave us what he could give us, and it was a foundation. That was when I came to understand just how different white schools could be.

When I went to Hampton University, the students who were from northern public schools, private schools, and other countries clearly had a superior educational background compared with mine. But I discovered that nothing takes the place of hard work. That is the difference! I started off in college not having had calculus but having a stronger background in chemistry, due to that one course I had taken during that summer in New England. Clearly, I was behind, but I was accustomed to making As and I was determined to make As.

Now, I tell my students that there is a “low A” and then there is an A they can make when they are able to say, “I know I know this work.” This is making the difference. I always tell them what Descartes said: “Dare to know.” I tell them that they should want to know as much as the faculty member, not just enough to make an A. We talk about “high As” in the Meyerhoff Program. But we do not talk only about grades and getting into graduate school and medical school. Michael Summers always said, “Freeman, sometimes the kid who gets the A is potentially not as good a scientist as the one who gets the B,” which helped me understand that there is more to life than just the grades. It is the curiosity. It is the passion. It is the determination to stick to it. Those are the things that will make a good scientist. I want all those things from our students, but frankly, I want the As also.

All my life, my parents said, “You need to be twice as good.” Some in this room know exactly what I am talking about because we did not think the world would be fair. We knew a lot of times opportunities would be there. But we also knew we would not necessarily get them because we were black. In my generation, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the understanding was that blacks had to be twice as good as whites. If you were twice as good, and if you were smart, maybe that opportunity would not be taken from you.

Think about these examples as I tell my next story. This story involves spending a summer in the 1960s at Tuskegee University in an NSF mathematics program.

The summer of 1960 marked the first time I met somebody who had a Ph.D.—a black man. He would come into the room, and on the blackboard he would write a math problem in probability—a problem we could not possibly solve. It was also the first time I realized that, even when you are smart, there are many problems you cannot solve in ten minutes. Sometimes you can go for hours and days and sometimes never solve them. I was amazed by what he was trying to teach us—that sometimes the process you go through in trying to solve a problem is far more helpful to you than getting to the answer. For years after that, I spent time in class trying to figure out, as the teacher was teaching, how I could explain a concept differently or how I could get kids excited about mathematics.

If you ask a group of typical Americans if they like mathematics, a few people will raise their hands. If you ask them if they really love math, they look at you like you are crazy (except for the few science and math teachers in the room). If you ask, “Do you love to read?” most educated people will raise their hands. It seems to me that, as we talk about increasing the number of minorities in science, we have to talk about what we need to do to increase the number of Americans who appreciate math and science. How do we get more students wanting to be smart, wanting to know, wanting to be the best, and having the curiosity?

I always quote the Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi, who said that when he was growing up in New York, all the Jewish mothers would ask their children at the end of a school day, “Did you learn anything today?” He said his Jewish mother asked him every day, “Did you ask a good question today?” It was that which made him a scientist. I get goose bumps thinking about that.

I moved to UMBC after a number of years at other institutions following undergraduate study at Hampton University and graduate school at the University of Illinois. It was at Illinois that I became passionate about committing my life to increasing both the number of kids who wanted to go into math and science and the number of students who would excel in math and science. At Illinois I never saw anybody black do well at math, ever, and I never had a black professor.

But at Illinois, there were several white faculty members who could see that I had a curiosity, who fascinated me in abstract algebra, and who were willing to spend time with me. It was there that I learned that you do not have to be black to help somebody black. It became clear to me that if all the faculty members in the math department are white males except for two women, and if we are going to increase the numbers of minorities and women that we have, we will need the help of a lot of white males.

It was that passion from the 1970s that led me to work with other students there, from graduate students who were having problems in statistics courses, to undergraduates who were trying to become engineers but could not get past the first calculus course. I began to shape my ideas about what was needed to increase the numbers of blacks who succeeded and to understand that succeeding at one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is very different from succeeding at a predominantly white university.

There are caring faculty, both black and white at the HBCUs, who understand they must spend time with students to enable them to succeed. Clearly, liberal arts colleges, black or white, tend to be more caring than big research universities. We know this, regardless of color. So, these institutions offer a number of advantages. This is why HBCUs such as Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, and Xavier have been able increasingly to educate students who sometimes do not have the desired academic background upon entering college, but who build the necessary background while there.

One of the challenges we face is that 70 percent of African American students are at schools other than HBCUs, and people do not realize that. The fact is that many go to college planning to major in science. Why? Usually they want to become physicians because these professionals have been important in their communities, often representing the most prestigious individuals. Few of the students have ever seen a Ph.D. chemist, and if they have, they are unaware of it or do not know what it means.

On my campus, we are trying to produce large numbers of students who will go on to M.D./Ph.D. programs because many already have the bug about being a doctor or physician. Michael Summers goes through this all the time. The students come in wanting to be physicians, but we spend a lot of time trying to hook them to research. Quite frankly, when a senior comes up to me and says, “Doc, I got into medical school” and goes on and on talking about a M.D. degree. I just say “okay,” and I never show excitement. But if the students talk about Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs, I get really excited. I am very biased that way. Why? Clifton Poodry told me that the purpose of the money NIH provided was to produce Ph.D.s. When I talk with representatives of the American Medical Association, they ask, “Why don't you show more excitement for physicians?” I say, “Give me some money to produce some doctors and I will show some excitement, but you get no freebies here.” Lunch is never free.

We have to produce the Ph.D.s for a lot of reasons. The point to all of these stories is to help shape your values, your vision, and what you are thinking about doing. For me, the vision for many years has been the following: I imagine a country in which you can go from university to university, from high school to high school, from company to company and see blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos and men and women working in science labs with the understanding that you will find superbly prepared people from all of those groups. You might walk over to somebody and, seeing a black scientist, say, “Oh, that is Dr. Warner, no big deal, just another black scientist. We have them all over the place.” This must be the vision. If you think about it, before the midpoint of this century, one in every two Americans will be of color. If you look at what is happening in California, in Texas, and in Florida, you can see the browning of America, where the terms minority and majority will cease to have meaning.

I was born in 1950 and I have my AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) card. I feel very good about that, although it took me a while to adjust to the idea. But the fact is, when I was growing up, there were four people working for every retired person. By the time I retire, there will be only two people of working age for each retiree, and one of those two will be of color. Do you want that person to be a chemist, to be sweeping floors, or to be in prison? The last two options will cost us a lot of money. That person's social security—along with my social security—depends on the kind of money the person is making. That is an argument we have heard many times.

So, the question is, what can we do—given the science and technology infrastructure that supports everything from defense to health care—to make a difference? The vision for us at UMBC was the Meyerhoff Program. The idea was to create a program in which African Americans would not just be getting by in science, but would be the very best that you could find anywhere—in terms of research, excitement about science, grades, and test scores.

From the beginning, the Meyerhoff program has focused heavily on the notion of evaluation. Bob and Jane Meyerhoff are wonderful philanthropists. Bob is a graduate of the MIT with a degree in engineering, and is a developer. Back in the 1980s, Bob had been telling people that he was interested in understanding why everything he saw on TV about black males was so negative. He said this to the head of the Abell Foundation, Bob Embry, with whom I had been talking with about improving the success of African Americans on our campus. Bob Embry introduced me to Bob Meyerhoff, and the program developed from our discussions. He and his wife have now contributed over $5 million to the program.

I am now serving as a visiting scholar with the College Board, which looks at interesting data and trends. Unfortunately, if you tell me you have a program involving students with high test scores, regardless of race, I will respond that most of those kids have a parent who had some college. There is a very high and positive linear correlation between standardized test scores and the income level and education of parents. The higher the education level of the parent, the higher the test scores will be for their kids. If you control for income, you find that test scores of blacks and Latinos are still far below those of whites. This is a consequence of what happens in the home after school, the kinds of schools that the children may attend, and, in some cases, whether the child gets the test preparation sessions that other kids get. All three are factors.

I have spent a lot of time with colleagues documenting what works in the Meyerhoff Program. At the same time, I have tried to answer the question that parents of young black children have been asking me since the late 1980s, “What can I do to make sure that my eight-year-old one day can be a Meyerhoff scholar?” My idea was to produce a program that would be so prestigious and so fabulous that parents would be saying, “I want my kid to be in that program,” and that young kids would be saying, “I want to be a Meyerhoff scholar one day.” How do you help the child to want to be smart and help the parent to understand that they must take certain steps to ensure their child's success?

I brought two books1,2 with me this evening that my coauthors and I have produced, and I want to read from one of them. We wanted to write books that reflected and documented the voices of the parents: “You know, we have always heard that in the third grade the little boys get off course.” For boys, scores and grades tend to decline from fourth grade on, girl's grades decline during middle school. The essential question to these parents was this: What did you do to help your child to become excited about science and to do well in school and to want to be smart?

In the Meyerhoff Program, about 40 percent of the participants are first-generation college students. This is only because we have worked hard to do two things. First we built up the skills of some of the region's high school students through math and science upward bound programs, so their test scores and grades would improve. Second, we searched in the inner city and surrounding areas to find those few kids who came from poverty but did really well, in spite of the odds. The child who comes out of poverty with SAT scores in the 1100s or 1200s is often as good—or has the potential to be as good—as that very advantaged black or white student who has a score of 1400 because of the difference in available opportunities.

The fact is that the advantaged kids, such as the high-achieving student whose father might be a physician, usually go off to big-name universities planning to become doctors, but they often end up becoming great lawyers. Why? Because that first chemistry course was a killer or that first calculus course, or that first physics course gave them a grade of C or below, while they got As in the English and history courses. The humanities people are a bit warmer than we math and science people. As you know, we in math and science will say, “Either you get it or you don't.” As a result, these kids will change their majors. This is an issue.

We talk about making a difference at all these levels. The fact is that if we could just keep the kids, black and Latino, who have done well, and who have As and Bs in chemistry from high school—if we could just keep them and help them get through the first year of college with Bs—we could double the number coming out of bachelor's degree programs. If you look at the numbers from NSF, you will see that they get wiped out in that first year.

I coauthored a book on young black males that was published in 1998 (see reference 1). I say to people that if we had written a book about the parents of murderers, it would have been a best seller because people like the bad stuff. However, I did not know if people would buy a book about parenting smart black boys in science. Yet, amazingly, this book is in its fifth printing. I have been in 30 states, and I have signed books for 30 state school boards from Alaska to New York. People in Alaska have the same kind of issues with minority children that people in D.C. have for black and Latino children.

When I go to the state school boards, arrangements are made to have book signings. From Atlanta to parts of California, people want to know what is working, and it is amazing. Parents will ask, “What can you tell us to do to help our children?” School administrators will ask, “How do we help these parents?”

Part of the issue as we talk about producing young scientists is to learn how you can help families to succeed and identify the factors related to success. These are probably the things that your parents did for you—simple old-fashioned approaches, such as acknowledging that there is a spirituality component. There is an emphasis on no-nonsense. There is an emphasis on discipline. There is an emphasis on creativity, LEGOs, puzzles at an early age, and reading. What is different about these minority parents? They have turned the televisions off, and they spend much more time getting their children to read.

There are wonderful cases, in which the mothers barely finished high school, and they used cooking to do mathematics and teach the children about fractions, decimals, and dollars. Just because you are poor does not mean you are not smart. There are a lot of brilliant people who just did not have the opportunity but can somehow use that brain power to help their children.

It was most important for the boys to give them examples of people who were not nerds, but who were smart. Think about it. What black boy in American society on TV in the 1980s and 1990s was known for his brains? There was only one. His name was Steve Erkel, a quintessential geek little boy who had his pants up to his chin. I remember saying that in a class, and I asked, “Who would want to be like Erkel?” A little boy who looked just like Erkel said, “I do, I do.” I had to change my story immediately.

The reality is, we do not have examples of cool kids who are smart. We need a lot of smart Doogie Howsers. Just think about it. We need more smart little girls on TV. Our kids do not see the examples. I just want you to hear this because you never know the background of a child in your class.

I am going to share with you an essay written in a freshman class by a very polished young woman. The professor was so taken by it that she sent it to me, and I was so touched that I made it the beginning of the first chapter of our book, which discussed successful African American women and their families. This is what she wrote:3

“Your uncle is hooked on crack,” says my mother, as we park in front of his house. As I walk toward my house, I look to my right and we see a couple of drug addicts sitting on what used to be my aunt's favorite couch and enjoying the comforts of her once humble abode.

On the steps there sits a high-school drop out, no older than the age of 17, counting the money he earned from selling drugs. At the corner, the mother of a local drug kingpin took on his responsibility after he was killed in cold blood. My parents always stressed the importance of a good education and taught me to strive to be the best. What you don't know is that I have witnessed the effects of drugs and alcohol firsthand with them, and it has taught me that drugs are not the way to deal with life's bleak realities. I use society as my motivation to excel in all that I do. As a teenage, black female, I am not expected to do well. There is a sense of satisfaction in knowing that I have achieved more than was expected. Even more important, I achieved more than I expected. My hard work paid off.

This is a young woman who is now a college junior, with a 3.9 GPA in chemical engineering. What made the difference? Even with drug and alcohol problems in her own family, someone kept telling her, “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.” That someone in her family was her mother. Even with the problems with the father, the mother pushed the notion, that “with hard work you can succeed.”

In the Meyerhoff Program, we write poetry together. I want the students to be broadly educated and not just technicians. I want them to learn social sciences, and we read from a Langston Hughes poem, Hold Fast to Dreams, “…if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” I help them to focus, focus, focus. The biggest challenge you face with so many young people is that there are a million ways they can get off track.

The Meyerhoff scholars are bright kids who come in with scores between 1200 and 1500 on the SATs, and they have high grades and they have had advanced placement chemistry in high school. “You have got it made” many people will say. The fact is that, if we did not spend a lot of time supporting them and holding discussion groups about what it means to be smart, black, and love science, and if we did not kick their butts, while loving them, most would change their majors.

What happens if I were a student who wanted to be accepted by my friends, but my friends spent one-third the amount of time studying and still could get Bs in the social sciences? In the meantime, I am working so hard to get an A, or sometimes a B or even below a B. If I am not careful, even though I might like Dr. Summers' lab, I could move toward a much easier life if I majored in political science and became a lawyer. Our students might entertain these thoughts, if we did not get involved.

There is good news on our campus, where 11,000 students are enrolled; 9,000 are undergraduates and 2,000 are graduate students. We are producing between 50 and 60 Ph.D.s per year, and 70 percent are in the sciences. Sixty percent of the undergraduate students major in science and engineering, with the typical student belonging to an honor society. One of the things that makes our university competitive is that we have so many first-generation Americans—whether they are from Russia, one of the Asian countries, Nigeria, or the Islands—and they are all focused. They are hungry. They push my typical American student, black or white, to do more. We have worked to create an environment in the Meyerhoff Program where the most prestigious people are the highest achievers.

That is why I make chess a big deal on our campus. We are the national chess champions. I am very proud of that. We actually give chess scholarships. The chess team has black, white, Asian, and all kinds of students participating in chess tournaments.

The goal is to create a climate in which it is great to be smart and to create a climate in which people talk about the sciences. I stress this. Look at the black kids and the white kids. Many—not all, but many—are talking about the party from the night before. It is part of American society. We have worked to encourage group study for all students. The chemistry involved has a wonderful effect on faculty and everybody, so that the students are involved in group study, with heavy emphasis on tutorials. The chemistry tutorial center is a place you go, not because you want to pass, but because you want to be the best. There is no stigma attached to it. That makes the difference. Whether we are talking about the chemistry tutorial or the faculty who are involved, what makes the difference is a commitment by the whole place that says, “this is important to us.” In contrast to early years at UMBC, Asian students are not the only group studying hard.

UMBC is working with companies to discuss multilevel partnerships. From my perspective, if we are going to make a difference, we must develop the kinds of partnerships that will work with kids from high school through the postdoctoral level—and do so in such a way that we know where those students are the entire time. For instance, I still have an NSF grant that allows me to monitor all the hundreds of students who have gone on to graduate and professional schools. As well prepared as they are, they still need that push from time to time. We want to encourage the students to use email and work with each other, so that when things get tough, there are other people they can talk to—for example, to talk about what it means to be the only black physics Ph.D. student in a place. I encourage you to look at ways of identifying students with the ability and giving them the support. You have to have it at all levels, but I am emphasizing the time through high school.

We enroll students from 45 states and 91 countries, but some of my best students come from right outside of Washington in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties—from Roosevelt High School and Montgomery Blair High School. Why? Those kids often are doing research at NIH labs or in biotech companies while in high school. They know what it means to have good hands. They have gotten the bug already, and they are serious about science. These are both black and white kids that I am talking about.

I spent five years as part of a trilateral study group on competitiveness. There were six Germans, six Americans, and six Japanese. I was representing education, pre-K through postdoc. We were together every six months, so we got to know each other really well.

After about three years, the Japanese really opened up to us. The Germans and Americans had been fairly straightforward, but the Japanese finally asked me the question they really wanted to ask. They said, “Freeman, yours is the greatest civilization that humankind has ever known. Yours is also the most diverse we have ever seen, but don't you think your diversity will be your downfall?” That is the question that the world, places like Japan and Germany, will ask and think, even when they will not say it.

I do not think I have ever been more proud to be an American. I said, “Let me tell you, it has been our diversity that has made us the greatest civilization ever. Everybody in the United States, except for the Native Americans, comes from somewhere else. It has been the pulling from all these different cultures over the years that has gotten us to this point. We have problems, big problems, yes, but any time this country has big problems, it finally pulls together the resources to make a difference and to solve those problems.” I said to them with great confidence, “I have no doubt we will do it here, too.”

The challenge for us right now is not about producing more chemistry students or science majors. It is getting more kids who want to be smart. It is somehow thinking out of the box about ways of connecting with these kids at earlier ages so that they see themselves as scientists—by becoming involved with science throughout their undergraduate experience. We need to create ways for them to work with companies while universities keep giving them that much-needed support.

We all need direction and support. The new Ph.D.s who are coming out now are calling me on the telephone and asking, “Doc, what do I do? Where do I find a mentor? The advisor I had is okay, but he really isn't interested in me.”

If there were one thing I would say it would be, “How can we be inspired by people like Michael Summers and Isiah Warner and the others in this room who are devoting their lives to producing these students?” How can we get that passion to make it contagious to the point that others will say, “This is a big deal. This is as important as anything else we could possibly do.” That is the challenge that we face.

When Tom Cech became president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he had been taking Meyerhoff students into his laboratory at the University of Colorado since the early 1990s. I will never forget the earlier time when Harold Varmus said to Tom Cech, “Freeman started the Meyerhoff Program.” Tom responded, “What is the Meyerhoff?” and Harold answered in his inimical way, “You mean you don't know what the Meyerhoff Program is?” The next week, Tom Cech called and said, “Freeman, give me two Meyerhoff students next summer.” Every summer he has had two. When he became the president of Howard Hughes, I sent him an email message telling him where his former students were— at Harvard, Yale, Baylor, doing a M.D./Ph.D. degree, and so on. These students had gone to his lab and were fascinated by two things. The science was wonderful, but he was also a decent human being. It is a big deal for a kid to realize that a Nobel Prize winner can be a decent human being who cares about students. It makes all the difference in the world. He emailed me back saying, “Thanks, Freeman, but you forgot three, and this is where they are located now.” There is the vision—the idea of connecting— not just for a summer, but for a lifetime.

When I first got to UMBC we had a black student protest in the first week. Angry black students overtook the whole floor where the president's office and my office were then located. There were TV cameras that looked right in my face, as if to ask “What are you going to do about it?” All of a sudden, I remembered the 1960s when we were the ones protesting. It hit me right then that I had become the administration. I remembered my president, years ago, saying, “Keep living, son, just keep on living. It will come around.” Now I was on the other side and I had become the man.

When I got to the bottom of the problem at UMBC, I discovered a number of reasons that the black kids were doing so poorly academically. The average GPAs were 1.9 for black males 2.0 for black females. So I decided to find out which of these kids were really smart. When I finally found the one who was considered one of the smartest of all, I asked the student (who was a chemistry major), “What did you earn in organic chemistry?” He said, a C. “What did you get in organic II?” Also a C. I said, “You are the best around here?” He responded, “If you are at UMBC and black and you get a C in organic chemistry, you are very smart.” That was the mind-set.

This kid had no problem getting into medical school because people knew that if you had a 2.7 in chemistry at UMBC and were black, you were really good. We would get them into medical schools without a problem. People were not thinking about Ph.D.s, but they knew they were really good.

That was the idea. Amazingly, when I went through the records, I could not find one African American who had earned an A in any upper-level science course in the history of UMBC. I have gone from one university to another challenging them to find the black students who got As. Usually they are from other countries.

I close with a story about Adam Freeman, the young man who was my first black student at UMBC to never earn less than an A in chemistry. Adam was finishing up. He had taken the GRE, scoring in the 99th percentile of the chemistry part—the best. He walked into the room as I was leading a focus group. I told him how well he had done, and all of a sudden, one person got up, then another person got up, and the entire room just started applauding, as if he were the best basketball player ever. Before I knew it, there was not a dry eye in the place. I saw big guys applauding with tears coming down. I looked at them, and I said, “It doesn't get any better than this, when a young man or a young woman wants to be the best.”



F.A. Hrabowski III, K.I. Maton, and G.L. Greif, Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.


F.A. Hrabowski, K.I. Maton, M.L. Greene, and G.L. Greif, Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.


F.A. Hrabowski, K.I. Maton, M.L. Greene, and G.L. Greif, Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, p. 240.