Why careers really derail


College: A study of three young blacks suggests that students can abandon fields of science for very practical reasons.

January 14, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CHRIS Tompkins, Marty Milan and Amir Jones. Pseudonyms for three middle-class, high-achieving black students who arrived at Talbert State University (also a pseudonym) a few years ago dreaming of careers in science.

Chris wanted to be an engineer. Marty was interested in psychiatry. Amir aspired to pharmacy. But by the time they graduated, only Amir had persisted.

Bradford F. Lewis, now a professor at Morgan State University, set out to find out why only one of the three stayed on track.

Lewis was well aware of the dire shortage of blacks in scientific fields; African-Americans make up only about 2 percent of scientists holding doctorates. Most of the explanations Lewis had seen had to do with the poor quality of education offered many black students. And many researchers had studied such factors as the influence of parents, high school grades and the number of science courses taken.

Lewis looked at the problem from another perspective. With his faculty adviser at Florida State University, Angelo Collins, he conducted an "interpretive investigation" into why the three students chose science as a career - and why two of them changed their minds.

Lewis extensively interviewed Chris, Marty and Amir, who volunteered for the project, over six months. "I got to know them pretty well," he said recently.

Of four things Chris wanted from his life, he eventually decided that a career in engineering could provide only one: a high salary. But he had very little idea what an engineer's working and personal lives were really like, and he bemoaned the time and effort required to major in engineering at Talbert State.

"I wasn't eating right," he told Lewis in one of the interviews. "I didn't have time to work out. I just didn't have time to enjoy life, period." Chris switched to business.

Like Chris, Marty had a naive understanding of her career aspiration, psychiatry. She found one of her first classes, in psychology, "the most boring I've ever had from kindergarten on. ... I hated it."

Marty, Lewis said, came to equate the tough coursework required of a psychology major with the career itself, and she saw psychiatry and psychology as one and the same. Her confused plan to become a psychiatrist was to obtain a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in psychology, and then to study for a medical degree.

"I want a position of power, basically," she said in one of her interviews. "I don't want to be low on, like, the chain of life. I want to be up high."

Then there was Amir, a young man "reared in a large city in the Midwest." Two personal traits distinguished him from Chris and Marty: his activism - he was deeply involved with the campus black student union - and his idealism. He valued spiritualism and "being a good human being" over money and power. He saw science as an instrument of change and himself as a change agent.

Lewis said the chief finding of his study (which earned him a doctorate) is that students will stay with the work required for careers in science if they think those careers will help them achieve their life goals. It follows that all students, particularly minorities, need early exposure to careers in math and the sciences.

"They need practical stuff," Lewis said, "like knowing what scientists really do, how they live their lives. Middle school isn't too early to start. African-American kids, even very smart ones, don't have in their social backgrounds the professional role models other kids see."

Two inspiring professors honored at memorials

Services for Saretha Gaskins Greene and Joseph Larkin Arnold were held back-to-back Saturday morning, Greene's at Douglas Memorial Community Church in the city, Arnold's at the Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

I don't know if they ever met, but Greene and Arnold had much in common. Both taught for 35 years, influencing countless students at Coppin State College and UMBC. Greene, 75, was an economist, one of the few African-American women at the mid-20th century to have studied economics as a discipline. She had wide-ranging interests, from music and travel to the restoration of St. Mary's City.

Arnold, 66, was an urban historian working at the time of his death on a history of Baltimore City. He was a Renaissance man, the pluperfect absent-minded professor, according to several speakers at his service.

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who spoke at both events, said of Greene what could have been said just as well of Arnold: "She could be a muse to intellectuals, to artists, to ministers, to philosophers, to deans - and to college presidents."

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