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
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
For more information, see www.umbc.edu/meyerhoff