Fellowship named for astronaut helps disadvantaged students shoot for the stars

November 26, 1994|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

Carolyn Carey, a 49-year-old Baltimore woman who has bounced from one clerical job to another most of her life, now talks about Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" in phone conversations with her son.

Donald Brogden, a 51-year-old laid-off Westinghouse assembly worker, wants to write about U.S. leaders of the 1840s -- such as James Polk, Zachary Taylor and John Calhoun -- and how their words and deeds affected blacks of their day.

Ms. Carey and Mr. Brogden are grandparents. Both are students at Coppin State College -- the first of their families to go to college. And, with the encouragement of the Ronald McNair fellowships, both intend to get doctorates and become professors.

For Mr. Brogden, who in 1977 left Coppin after two years, returning to school after being laid off two years ago represented "unfinished business over on North Avenue," in the words of his four children.

"My ultimate goal was to go be yond the bachelor's for the master's degree," Mr. Brogden said recently, sitting around a table at the historically black campus in West Baltimore. "The Ph.D. -- it just seemed to be out of realm, beyond my capacity to get there. Being involved in this program has provided me with the impetus to do this."

"This program" is the Ronald McNair fellowship, a U.S. Department of Education initiative named after the black astronaut who perished in the fiery demise of the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986. The program aims to encourage postgraduate study among students who ordinarily might not do so, such as those from lower-income families.

Coppin State was one of the first six schools granted funding by the Education Department in 1989 for the program. There are now about 1,300 McNair fellows enrolled at 68 sponsor campuses nationally, including Bowie State University, the University of Maryland College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Juniors and seniors who are chosen are from lower-income families, are the first in their family to attend college, or are black.

Dean T. J. Bryan, who heads the program along with Coppin's arts and sciences school, said the idea is not just to single out those students who might have already been planning to pursue postgraduate degrees.

"They learn to tread a path that has not been trod before," said Sylvia Cooke Martin, coordinator of the McNair program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She said she was stunned recently to see a black female student who grew up on some of Baltimore's hardest streets turn and speak in Mandarin to a woman who grew up in China.

"For me, it's exhilarating," said Dr. Martin, who left the Library of Congress staff this year to join UMBC. "They have some particular needs. They can't go home at Thanksgiving and talk about research. [Their families] just wouldn't understand."

"To graduate from college is itself a tremendous achievement," Dr. Bryan said. "There are so many pressures on a student to go right into a job."

Coppin's McNair program has workshops to prepare students for the Graduate Record Examination, give them computer literacy and expose them to cultural events. Coppin professors serve as mentors, offering inspiration and recommendations. Especially important is the research component, in which students are paired with faculty members at research universities -- for Coppin, Big Ten schools in the Midwest -- and are required to develop their own research over a summer.

"We take students who might be considered risky," many working full time while taking a heavy course load, Dr. Bryan said. But it seems to pay off. About 15 percent of all Coppin graduates pursue postgraduate degrees, while 65 percent to 85 percent of McNair fellows do so, she said.

The college provides partial tuition reimbursement, and the students are also given a $2,400 stipend, travel expenses and room and board costs for the research session over the summer.

Many program graduates go on to enroll at the universities where they spent their summers. They are pursuing degrees at Harvard University, Bowling Green University and the University of Maryland College Park, for example.

"If you want students to do well in graduate school, you really can't teach them how to do that within the confines of Coppin State College," Dr. Bryan said. "We try to expose students to the expectations they will face in doctoral studies."

"For many of our students, they really have not been away from Baltimore that much," she said. "The thinking was if they had a successful short-term experience they would be less reluctant to leave Baltimore."

McNair scholar Donna Clayton, a senior English and media studies major from Jamaica, wanted to look at the television system in her native country.

"My mentor, he advised I should do a content analysis," Ms. Clayton said. "I had no idea on what a content analysis was. He gave me a big reading just on that alone."

Ms. Carey, for example, went to Pennsylvania State University to study with Bernard Bell, a literature professor who told her he was not accustomed to working with undergraduates of any age.

"I smiled," Ms. Carey recalled. "There was nothing Dr. Bell could ask me for that I couldn't provide." Her work blossomed into a paper comparing the story in Zora Neale Hurston's "Myth of Moses" to the tale of Exodus in the Bible.

"I want to write and teach and to be able to do both at the same time," Ms. Carey said. "I'm going all the way."

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