A Baltimorean goes to Hopkins

September 08, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

As freshman Tierra Strange finished loading her mother Elsie's van with all the belongings that she would take to her first home away from home, Elsie suggested she take one last look around their West Baltimore rowhouse, to make certain nothing had been left behind.

"I know I didn't leave anything," replied a confident Tierra. "I packed to go."

It was last Thursday, the morning of Sept. 1, and the day freshmen from around the world would converge upon Johns Hopkins, the prestigious university on North Charles Street.

Strange would have one of the shortest distances to campus of anyone that day - she was merely traveling across town from North Calhoun Street. But she began packing three days earlier and stayed up until 3 a.m., struggling to sleep as she awaited the dawn.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Thursday's Today section about a Baltimore girl going to Johns Hopkins under a new scholarship program, the name of the school her twin sister attends was misidentified: It is the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

You would have thought the Dunbar High School graduate was bound for distant environs, far from where she grew up.

In many ways she was.

Home is a quiet, working-class, African-American neighborhood bordering some of Baltimore's most desolate streets. The newly renovated brick brownstones highlight a street where locals sit out on their front steps and catch up on current events with neighbors - just blocks away from weather-beaten, boarded-up buildings and tattered storefronts. It's a place where Strange has dreamed of becoming a doctor since age 7 - and 10 years later, it's a place she must leave to fulfill that dream.

Her destination: a school confronting its reputation for being virtually off limits to students such as her - a campus in an upmarket setting where African-Americans make up just 7 percent of the undergraduate student body. Additionally, only 13 percent of undergrads were born in Maryland and, for each of the past three years, an average of just 11 students from Baltimore City public schools were admitted as freshmen.

It's a place where, like Duke, Georgetown, Yale and other prestigious schools in urban settings, you can walk along the campus yard and straightaway forget what city you're in.

But as Elsie Strange headed in her van toward her daughter's dorm, and trash-strewn streets gave way to manicured lawns, she felt assured that her daughter's dream is in good hands.

Things are changing for Baltimore public school students at Hopkins. In fact, one of the reasons why Strange applied to Hopkins is it guaranteed her a full ride upon acceptance, enrolling her as one of the first participants in its inaugural Baltimore Scholars program.

The Baltimore Scholars are Hopkins-bound, high-achieving students from Baltimore public schools who in the past may have been overlooked by the university.

Hopkins president William Brody announced the program in June 2004 at Dunbar, hailing it as "one more step to support our city and especially our public schools." The program offers scholarships to city public school students who are admitted and ultimately enroll at Hopkins.

Already, the program has borne fruit: There were 33 such students accepted this year, more than double the 14 who were admitted last year, and 22 have enrolled.

"If it keeps up at this rate, by the time these kids graduate we're going to have approximately 100 students from Baltimore City schools," said Matthew Crenson, a lead faculty adviser to the Baltimore Scholars program and a Hopkins graduate.

"What we're looking at for the long term is a pipeline program where we go into middle schools to try to identify and prepare students not only to come to Hopkins but to apply for college in general."

The program has been such a godsend for Tierra Strange that she abandoned plans to leave the state for college. She considered Hopkins only after failing to gain admission to Stanford, yet ultimately chose it over Gettysburg, Towson, Temple and the University of Maryland, College Park.

She's no stranger to going across town for schooling, having chosen to attend the east side Dunbar over the high school in her jurisdiction - Frederick Douglass - because the former was a more career-oriented school that offered courses related to her interest in medicine - including biology and an Emergency Medical Technician course.

Yet Dunbar is also predominantly black, like other schools she's attended all her life. In Hopkins she has found herself among the most diverse demographic she's ever been part of, and she's enjoying every minute.

"I'm looking forward to meeting new people, trying to find my independence, doing hard work," said Strange, whose roommate, Clare Bernard, grew up on a horse farm in Sherborn, Mass. "The diversity appealed to me because I like being around different people."

The Baltimore Scholars program assures she will be exposed to different worlds, yet she need only catch a cab when the need for a home-cooked meal kicks in.

For Hopkins, it means students from other areas will get a perspective on Baltimore from someone who actually grew up here.

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