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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

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 2002



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.

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

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?

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....

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