The best friendships sometimes start in strange ways. For UMBC senior Loren Siebert, it began one day last spring when the university's president asked casually, "What are you reading these days?"
Freeman A. Hrabowski's question led to an invitation that the 21-year-old computer wizard join him in reading material that might broaden his outlook -- ranging from autobiographies to the stock market analysis to Jane Austen.
"That was the beginning of a real great friendship and the most profound of mentors," Mr. Siebert said.
Before the two men met last spring, Mr. Siebert already had distinguished himself on the Catonsville campus. He earned a near-perfect 3.9 grade point average in computer science and served as captain of the swim team while putting himself through school by winning scholarships, working odd jobs and playing the stock market.
Then he became UMBC's first winner of a prestigious Marshall scholarship, which will pay for two years of advanced study at the University of Manchester in England. He also was named a semifinalist for a Rhodes scholarship.
"I've been working my butt off for years," Mr. Siebert said. "The people at UMBC have been very supportive, and it seemed the harder I worked, the harder they worked for me."
One of his chief supporters is Dr. Hrabowski. Their first real meeting came last April, when Mr. Siebert was asked to address incoming freshmen and their families.
"I panicked," he recalled. "I didn't have anything to say, and I didn't want to bore them."
Dr. Hrabowski, seated next to him on the platform, kept up a steady stream of whispered encouragement. The speech went well. "As a scholar-athlete, Loren had plenty to say," the college president recalled.
He also realized that Mr. Siebert might need an academic mentor and a friend.
"I knew he was a high-achieving student, but I did not really know him," the university president said. "I knew that computers were his life, and that is a major point with our science, engineering and computer students. They become so involved that they need to broaden themselves and put their disciplines in perspective."
In fact, Mr. Siebert's technical expertise is so potent that he became a paid consultant to the company that installed the university's new computer system. He also tutors other students, Dr. Hrabowski said.
When speaking of his future, Mr. Siebert, who is 6-foot-1 with the broad shoulders of a competitive swimmer, uses words like "millionaire" and even "president" with unblushing self-confidence.
"He's a nice person, very bright and confident but not cocky," said Alison Sampson, education assistant at the British Embassy, who worked with Mr. Siebert on his Marshall application.
Mr. Siebert's father, Manfred, a NASA engineer, died 10 years ago. His mother, Amie, an Australian-born jazz singer who toured under the name Jay Vickery, died soon after he graduated from Atholton High School in Howard County and entered UMBC. He has financed his education with a succession of athletic and academic scholarships, his investments and summer jobs.
His sense of a "limitless future," which he says will work itself out, has driven him to use his success to help others and to plan for bigger things later.
Last year, he worked as a mentor with a 12-year-old Cherry Hill boy as part of a program called CHOICE.
"I described opportunities to him he had never even thought about," Mr. Siebert said. "When you give your time and care, it's better than money. . . . I want to get more people involved."
True to his word, he has recruited six schoolmates, including several from the swim team, to join him in the CHOICE program during the spring semester.
Senior biology major Chris Gibeau, Mr. Siebert's roommate and fellow swimmer, said the two have been buddies since they were 10 years old. He described his friend as, "definitely an incredible guy, always willing to be there for you, easy-going and fun to hang out with."
The Marshall Scholarship -- worth $20,000 a year and one of 36 awarded nationwide -- will provide two years of study at Manchester, which Mr. Siebert said is Britain's best school for advanced computer science.
From there, he plans to reapply for a Fulbright scholarship. He abandoned that application when he won the Marshall. If selected, he wants to work in Senegal in West Africa, applying his expertise to the Geographic Information System, a computerized method of determining the best use of land to prevent famine.
"I wanted to go somewhere I could see how computer science worked in a real application," he said.
His love affair with computers began when his parents brought one home a dozen years ago. He caught on quickly but soon tired of playing computer games. So he wrote checkbook management and address file programs for his mother. She didn't use them.
"She didn't like computers," he said. "But I just had fun making up programs, and I've kept at it ever since."
When he's not spending time with computers, Mr. Siebert tracks the stock market. He started investing his first year at UMBC.
"It's my principal source of income," he said with a grin. "But I don't spend much."
A potential stockbroker himself? No way.
"I like being an investor. I like watching my broker work, but he works 60 or 70 hours a week because things are happening all over, all the time," he said. "It would be an unhealthy job for me. I'd die at 40 because I'd never sleep. I'd always want to know what was going on everywhere."
Said Dr. Hrabowski: "He wants to be the best at anything he does, and he has very good judgment about what he does. I think he'll make a major dent in the world."