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The secrets of their hard-earned success

A college president discusses his findings on what helps young African-American women to thrive in math, science

The Meyerhoff scholars at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are usually the ones looking through the microscope. But this time, they are under scrutiny.

What everyone wants to know about these successful African-American science students is how they've achieved their accomplishments.

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The answer has a lot to do with family, says UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, co-author of "Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women" (Oxford University Press). A follow-up to a similar study of men, the book, written with Kenneth Maton, Monica Greene, and Geoffrey Greif, is based on surveys of 100 female Meyerhoff scholars and interviews with two-thirds of them and 73 parents.

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program was launched in 1989 to increase the number of African-American research scientists and engineers. Each year, 40 to 60 students with high SAT scores, good grades, and a commitment to science and community service are selected from across the United States to receive support ranging from scholarships to mentoring.

It has become one of the largest producers of African-American science PhDs and MDs in the US. Originally set up for black males, it expanded to include women, other racial minorities, and white students interested in the issues minority scientists face.

Dr. Hrabowski spoke to the Monitor recently about some of what he discovered:

Why did you focus on African-American women interested in science?

If you look at the data on degrees in science and technology in our country, you'll see that a very small percent of those degrees are awarded to African-American women.... The country will need increasing numbers of citizens prepared in science and technology, and an increasing percentage ... will consist of people from these minority groups.

Do you expect a readership beyond the African-American community?

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Yes. What is significant about the book is that many of the lessons learned are applicable in raising children in general, and in raising girls in particular, regardless of race.... There are challenges that we face in our country - having to do with ... our view of who scientists are. If I said to you, a scientist walked into the room, most likely you're going to think of a male, usually white, with a white coat on.

What characteristics do the families that you interviewed have in common?

These parents ... tend to be old-fashioned. In many cases, the young women have grown up in religious families.... These women will talk about the power of prayer ... and how having a ... conservative upbringing helped to prepare them for a world filled with temptations. Many have been leaders in churches....

The parents have been very careful in raising these daughters, in thinking about critical issues, whether ... dating, or sex, or the self-esteem of the young woman.

[T]he parents have become experts on their children, to know their strengths and weaknesses. In many cases, the daughters did feel the parents were too strict in high school.... What's interesting is that the young women, currently in college or graduate school, say they understand now why their parents did what [they] did....

On issues of sexual intimacy, parents handled the matter very differently. Some talked frequently about those issues. And some of the daughters reported that they chose to abstain from sex because of their values. In several cases, daughters talked about making a conscious decision to break the family legacy of teen pregnancy.

There were other things [parents] did, from promoting reading to restricting television to ... supporting ... extracurricular activities. They understood that just having the girls sitting around home in the afternoon was not a good thing.

Were there specific ways adults fostered girls' interest in science?

In some cases, parents were very deliberate in working with math problems and giving the girls science games. In other cases, it happened because of a teacher. But the parents tended to be cheerleaders. In some cases, the parents actually ended up arguing with administrators to make sure the girls were placed in certain courses. Sometimes they needed to seek a tutor. [I]n a number of cases, there were wonderful women role models in math and science in high schools....

What comes through is this whole village notion, that it really does take a number of people working collaboratively with parents to encourage students to succeed.

Did the women talk about how race or gender affected their experiences?

A number of these women were ostracized, or told they were acting white, or made to feel insecure because they were in the gifted-and-talented class.... [They] talked about sometimes being overlooked by faculty members or teachers. They sometimes had to decide between having a boyfriend or doing well in science. In some cases, they had friends who were not black, because those were the ones in their classes, and they ended up being ... caught between two worlds in high school.

How do you give a young woman the confidence that will allow her to be the only woman and only black in a lab? It was very important, even before college, that parents took the time to talk about what it means to be different from other people, and to be proud of one's differences....

Was peer pressure a big issue?

I think the "acting white" notion is one we really have to look at. These students, ... who are doing well in their classes, who are speaking standard English, who are excited about studying, often found that someone would say they were acting white.

[One basketball coach, responding to a young woman whose friend told her she was acting white, replied:] "If acting white is carrying a 3.9 average and making the honor roll and doing everything right, then you should be as white as the sheet you're sleeping on."

What advice would you offer schools?

We so often hear American girls saying they don't like mathematics, and [math] is at the base of much of what we do in science and engineering.... [We should be] using more math examples that have girls as the subject, that are gender-sensitive.

Schools need to find ways to focus on high expectations of all students. If teachers ... are not accustomed to seeing African-American girls or young women succeeding in advanced science courses, then, in many cases, they may not expect it can be done. You believe that which you see. So the challenge is to identify those with the potential to have some success, because success breeds success.

The Meyerhoff Program has been significant for a number of reasons. Before we started this program in 1989, we had never seen African-Americans earning A's in upper-level science courses here.... Once that first African-American woman earned the A in genetics, for example, other young women said, "I can do this." And since that time we now have large numbers earning A's in all these science and engineering courses.

What advice do you offer parents?

[Think] about what it means to love one's child, that it's more than about simply saying it, that it does involve self-sacrifice. It involves a major time commitment and an active involvement in all parts of the child's life, focusing on ... challenging them to set high expectations for themselves; involvement with teachers...; attending the child's performances and sports activities; being willing to be critical when necessary, but also being willing to take advice from teachers...; focusing a great deal of attention on open and honest communication; knowing how to listen and not simply lecture; learning approaches that one can take in talking about the sensitive issues....

At the beginning of the book, there's a quote from a young woman who talks about being in a neighborhood where there are a lot of drugs, and who had problems with drugs and alcohol in her immediate family. Yet, she says, in essence, they believed in hard work. The only way she was going to be able to get out of her circumstances was to get a good education. And she says her hard work paid off.... This is a young woman who had a 3.9 in her junior year in chemical engineering.

When there was an emphasis on hard work and teaching a child to read and think at an early age, and helping that child to believe in herself, those were the most important things that led to success.

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