From the town, wearing the gown

August 31, 2008|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,

During move-in weekend at Hopkins, she was the girl to see - for new students wondering where to get their IDs, for parents trudging around with huge Bed Bath & Beyond bags, for the hundreds of upperclassmen helping to unpack the SUVs and minivans ferrying the class of 2012 to campus.

Not only is Britni Lonesome, 20, head of the school move-in committee that is helping this year's freshmen and transfer students settle into the Homewood campus, she is that surprisingly rare Hopkins student: an actual Baltimorean.

The town-and-gown divide that you find in many cities has always seemed particularly daunting at Hopkins - the world-renowned university, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a whiter, wealthier island within Baltimore, geographically a part of the city but at a remove in so many other ways.

"It has always been viewed as an extremely hard school to get into and extremely expensive," Lonesome says. "I thought, even if I did get in, I couldn't have gone."

Lonesome may have been underselling herself a bit on that first count - she is a graduate of the elite Polytechnic Institute, and its tough A-course to boot, and as a high school senior was already working in the lab of one of Hopkins' engineering professors.

Nonetheless, she hadn't even planned on applying. Like other kids in the city's public high schools, she didn't know anyone who went to Hopkins - something that, of course, makes for a self-perpetuating cycle. Most years, you could count on one hand the number of Baltimore public school graduates entering Hopkins.

But then Lonesome heard about the Baltimore Scholars program, which gives free tuition - almost $38,000 this year - to any graduate of a city public high school who makes it through the same acceptance process as any other applicant.

That of course is no easy task at the selective school - where only one-fourth of the 16,000 applicants for this year's freshman class were accepted, and about 1,200 ultimately opted to come.

The university accepted Lonesome on early admission, and now, starting her third year there, she has become something of a dual ambassador, of Hopkins to city students and of the city to Hopkins students.

"You feel like the local expert on campus," she says.

As such, she helps dispel a common fear about the city: "The perception is, 'Is it just like The Wire?' " Lonesome says. "They just think it's the most violent place."

Lonesome hasn't even seen the gritty HBO series, and hasn't exactly lived it herself. An only child, she grew up in the Hamilton area with a mother who works as a project manager for CareFirst and a stepfather who is an elementary schoolteacher. She played varsity women's basketball all four years at Poly and now plays for Hopkins.

That someone like Lonesome almost didn't even apply to Hopkins speaks to the need for something like Baltimore Scholars, which this academic year will graduate its first class.

"Our applicants went way up after we announced the program," says Matthew Crenson, a recently retired political science professor who remains academic director of the Baltimore Scholars program. Including the 13 students entering this year, the program has brought 73 city public school graduates to Hopkins. Most, like the city school system as a whole, are African-American, which has helped Hopkins diversify its campus. (Of this year's freshman class, fewer than 200 are considered "underrepresented minorities," which is largely blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans).

Crenson, for one, is glad to have more locals cross that invisible barrier onto campus. He himself, after all, is a product of both Baltimore public schools and Hopkins (fun fact: he and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were frat brothers), and yet has seen the college get less and less "Baltimore" as its national, and international, reputation has grown.

Lonesome, a chemical engineering major, says the scholars program has helped Hopkins build a "more approachable reputation" around town. As Lonesome navigates the campus, helping orient newcomers to town and to Hopkins, though, even she still has to remember exactly where she is.

"I forget when I'm on campus that I'm in Baltimore," she says, "and 10 minutes from home."

Jean Marbella's column also appears Thursday.

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