Small-town school lures big-city students

St. Mary's College attracts Baltimoreans with its charm, its scholarships

November 30, 2003|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The idyllic campus of St. Mary's College is a long way from Baltimore, in more ways than one. Situated on the St. Mary's River at the southernmost point in the state, the small, public liberal arts college often finds itself overlooked by prospective students from the city.

But as part of its drive to attract city students, St. Mary's is offering scholarships and grants to a handful of Baltimore students - an effort set to grow next year through a scholarship fund set up by a 1941 graduate.

The Tommy Yeager Scholarship, established by alumna Martha Yeager in honor of her late husband G. Thomas Yeager III, will provide scholarships to Baltimore high school students for the 2004-2005 academic year.

And for the past two school years, the Baltimore-based CollegeBound Foundation has given scholarships to city high school students who go on to attend St. Mary's.

Between the CollegeBound Foundation's assistance and the Yeager Scholarship, the school will be able to offer scholarships to about a half-dozen Baltimore City high school students next year, said Wes Jordan, the college's dean of admissions.

"We are a public college, and a constant goal of public universities is to be diverse and open to everyone," said Jordan.

College officials say they are working to overcome misconceptions about their school that might discourage city students from applying.

Some erroneously think St. Mary's is a private or religious college, said Mark Apter, associate vice president for marketing and public relations. (The college is named after St. Mary's City).

Another misconception about the college is that its student body is almost entirely white. In fact, minorities make up about 17 percent of the student population, officials say.

The CollegeBound partnership with St. Mary's grew out of the foundation's goals to develop closer relationships with local colleges and universities, said Craig Spilman, the foundation's executive director. Since 1993, CollegeBound has helped send 21 city students to St. Mary's. Three are freshmen this year.

The Yeager scholarship, part of the school's $40 million capital campaign, was the initiative of Martha Yeager, Class of 1941, who grew up in Baltimore and attended the now-closed Eastern High School

A state scholarship gave her the opportunity to attend what was then known as St. Mary's Female Seminary Junior College. The awards were based on economic need and academic standing. "I definitely would not have been able to go to college without that support," she said.

Her husband worked for 40 years at what is now the investment banking firm of Ferris Baker Watts Inc., starting out as a "runner" and ending as the manager of the firm's West Virginia office. Although a successful businessman, "He never had the opportunity to go to college," Yeager said, adding that many students in Baltimore face that situation.

"This is a way to give back what I received," said Yeager of the $100,000 gift. She also established an endowed chair in the college's liberal arts department.

St. Mary's College is an ideal school for city students, she said: "A small college and a place that gives a person the opportunity to develop leadership skills. It's a very caring atmosphere. ... The professors are very interested in their students and give them their time."

As a city girl who grew up on St. Paul Street, she fell in love with the beauty of the St. Mary's campus. She remembers swimming in the river and gathering every night in the school's main hall with her fellow students.

The beauty of the school and its surroundings drew freshman Rashidah Bahar to St. Mary's. At first, the Western High School student applied to St. Mary's to make her mother happy. Bahar wasn't so sure about it until she first set foot on campus.

"It was like lightning," she said. "Coming from the city and that environment - the school is gorgeous." For Bahar, who says she is a bit shy, going to a small college where everyone knows one another was a good idea. "I like the fact that my professors know my name," she said.

Admission to St. Mary's is competitive: Last year, the college received 2,275 applications for 420 slots.

However, unlike larger universities that eliminate possible candidates based solely on grades or SAT scores, St. Mary's looks at the whole application, Apter said. "We're able to take a chance on students who may have thought they weren't good enough to attend," he said.

To help students at the college adjust to life at St. Mary's during freshman year, the college has several programs to make them feel welcome. The college's Multicultural Achievement Program pairs freshmen with upperclassmen, and tutoring services are available for any student who needs them.

The extra measures have seemed to work. So far, none of the CollegeBound students have dropped out or flunked out, Jordan said, and the retention rate for minority students is no different from that for white students. Ninety percent of freshmen return for their sophomore year.

Still, coming from a city high school to St. Mary's can be a bit of a culture shock, said sophomore Durryle Brooks, a former Southern High School student who grew up in Cherry Hill.

"It was a big difference for me," said Brooks. "Southern was predominantly black. And then to come to a place that was predominantly white, it was a big change."

But the change was well worth it, he said. "I was looking forward to getting out of Cherry Hill. ... I wanted to come to St. Mary's. I liked the curriculum. It's very challenging."

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