Engineering a path to success


Philanthropy: For 16 years, Meyerhoff Scholarships have opened doors for science students.

August 08, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT WAS 13 YEARS between interviews with Melanie Smith.

The first time, she was a shy 17-year-old, the 1991 valedictorian at Baltimore's Western High School.

Clearly, she was going places. She had already won $5,000 at an international science fair. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, then executive vice president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings had persuaded Smith to enter "M-3," the third class of a new program designed to attract African-Americans to the study of science, mathematics and engineering at UMBC.

Named for its benefactors, Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, the Meyerhoff Scholarship program was shattering stereotypes. Smith was the product of a Baltimore high school, of a working-class, single-parent family in the heart of the city. To some in her teenage circle, it wasn't cool to be smart.

I interviewed Smith a second time the other day. She has gone amazing places, but she's still a student. This summer, she began a four-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, having graduated in the spring with combined medical and doctorate degrees from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

It took Smith nine years to complete Maryland's program, she said. "I guess you could say I'm in the 24th grade. It's been an awesome ride. I've worked with some of the smartest people in the world."

She won't complete her residency until 2008, 17 years after her Western High commencement, but Smith is already among America's scientific elite.

"Only 2 percent of the nation's Ph.D.s in science are black," said Hrabowski, who became UMBC's president in 1993. "People like Melanie are in a special place. She'll do more than just teach, although we need African-American teachers. But Melanie is in a position to focus on major research, perhaps finding cures for disease. She may discover things that affect millions of people, and I wouldn't be surprised if she returns to her hometown to do it."

Hrabowski then ticked off the names of several Meyerhoff Scholars who have worked their way into the ether of scientific, mathematical and engineering accomplishment, earning advanced degrees at the nation's elite graduate and research schools, all the while smashing stereotypes to smithereens.

"When I go around the country, people tell me there aren't enough Meyerhoffs," said Terry Rogers, director of Maryland's M.D./Ph.D. program, a demanding course of medical study and research that accepts only five students a year from 100 or more applicants. (Smith was the first minority graduate.)

Before their first term as freshmen, the Meyerhoff Scholars spend six weeks at UMBC in what is called the "Summer Bridge." This year, 56 freshman scholars lived in the dorms, took a couple of courses, researched and delivered a speech and generally got a taste of college life away from the comfort and safety of home.

The program was launched in the late 1980s with a simple proposition: Recruit Maryland's brightest black male high school graduates with generous scholarships, and give them the best education possible in science, mathematics and engineering.

The program has changed: Young women joined their brothers in the second year, and when affirmative action came under legal attack in the 1990s, UMBC opened Meyerhoff to students of any race, so long as they devote themselves and their academic work to the "underrepresented" in America. About 17 percent of this fall's 251 Meyerhoff Scholars will be white.

I dropped in on the last week of Summer Bridge this year. There were 63 of them, drawn mostly from Maryland, although Brandon Johnson of Freehold, N.J., turned down Yale, Columbia and Penn to take one of the scholarships. Many are the sons and daughters of teachers and professors. All had strong role models and mentors in high school. All studied hard. Several were valedictorians.

On campus this fall, they'll be admired for their smartness. They are to UMBC what the varsity football players are to many a university.

They will become the heroes of later sessions, just as Melanie Smith is one of the heroes of this year's. She's only 30, of course, but she was held up the day I was there as an example of what hard work and sacrifice can accomplish. She's a pioneer.

Schools' repayment keeps S&P happy

Standard & Poor's, the credit rating people, were impressed by the city school system's timely repayment of a $34 million loan to Baltimore City last Monday.

"Standard & Poor's has left its A+ rating on the city's general obligation debt unchanged and remains comfortable with the city's fiscal management oversight and management practices," the company announced two days later.

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