Alumnus, wife provide boost for UM scholarship program

They will pay expenses each year for 2 who enroll from city high schools

October 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It's an anomaly of higher education in Maryland: The state's largest university draws hardly any students from the state's largest city.

Now the University of Maryland, College Park is counting on Murray A. Valenstein - and, it hopes, more people like him - to change that.

Valenstein - a retired New York advertising executive who graduated from City College and the University of Maryland - and his wife, Suzanne, will pay for two city students per year to attend the state's flagship campus under a program intended to strengthen ties between Baltimore and College Park. (Program participants receive full scholarships for undergraduate education, but each year, two new recipients will be named Valenstein scholars.)

For the Valensteins, who have no children, it's a chance to enjoy the satisfaction of helping put young people through college - and to prove that graduates of Baltimore public schools can make it at College Park, as Valenstein did more than 60 years ago.

"There has to be a certain inherent ability in [recipients], but to me, the cream inevitably rises to the top," he said at a recent awards dinner for scholarship winners. "Anyone who matriculates by definition has the qualifications for success."

For the university, the Valensteins' support is a much-needed boost in its search for contributors with city ties to back the Baltimore Incentive Awards Program. Until recently, the university had found relatively little local backing for the 2-year-old program, under which nine Baltimore high school graduates per year receive full scholarships to UMCP.

The university, which bears about half the program cost of roughly $800,000, hopes that eventually most will be carried by Baltimore-based contributors. Officials would like to use other contributions to offer similar scholarships to students from other parts of the state.

"We need to connect with the Baltimore community - these are Baltimore schools, Baltimore kids," said university President C.D. Mote Jr. "Baltimore is the greatest city in the state, and if [the program] can't take root in Baltimore, it can't take root anywhere else."

This fall, 42 of the 3,900 freshmen at the College Park campus hail from Baltimore public schools - nearly a quarter of them Incentive Awards recipients. Campus officials attribute this to the poor college preparation they say many Baltimore students receive, and to the university's low profile in the city.

Even in Murray A. Valenstein's day, the pipeline between Baltimore and College Park ran at a slow trickle, said the 1936 City College graduate.

"We always had a pet joke that the people in Baltimore considered it to be the University of Washington D.C.," he said. "I think that's still true to some extent, but I think [the awards] will go a long way to help that."

Valenstein, the son of a clothing merchant, attended the state university because it was all he could afford during the Depression. After majoring in economics, he spent five years in the Army, then found work in advertising in Baltimore, where he met his wife, a 1945 graduate of Forest Park High School.

They moved to New York, where he joined a small advertising firm that, in his words, "we built into something rather sizable." The Lieber Katz Agency developed a client list that included R.J. Reynolds, Campbell's and Seagrams. Valenstein and his partners sold the business in 1986.

It's an inspiring story for the first two students receiving scholarships in Valenstein's name, Yavona Williams, a 2001 graduate of City College, and Kelly Smith, a 2002 graduate of Southern High School. Valenstein has asked the university not to disclose the size of his contribution, but school officials estimate that supporting two students under the program costs more than $27,000 per year.

Williams and Smith said they were leaning toward the University of Maryland from the start, but winning full scholarship sealed the deal. The awards have created a stronger sense of fellowship among city students in College Park, they said - and have spurred interest in the university in Baltimore.

"When people see you can do it, they know that other people can do it," said Williams, a sophomore engineering major with a 3.44 grade point average. "They see me as an inspiration."

The program is intended to attract students who might not have the highest grades in their graduating classes, but have shown an ability to overcome serious challenges - what Mote calls "internal courage." It is not without skeptics. Some fear that the recipients, many of whom have weaker academic credentials than other UMCP students, will languish at the increasingly competitive campus.

Valenstein disagrees. Although he and his wife are planning to create a merit-based scholarship in their name at the university, they want to give a chance to needy students who are bringing great initiative to College Park.

"These youngsters may not have the top SAT scores, but they can more than justify their worthiness," he said. "It's marvelous to find kids who've persevered through tremendous obstacles like these kids face."

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