When Freeman A. Hrabowski, III Ph.D., graduated from the historically black college Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) at 19 with high honors in mathematics, he remembers that the staff and faculty made him feel special and helped him along the way. He recalls a much different feeling when he was one of the only African American students at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “I remember how people would make me feel ordinary and question [my presence],” says Hrabowski, who finished his Ph.D. at age 24 in 1975.
Now, as the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Hrabowski has made it his mission to help increase the numbers of African American students who not only graduate with undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics but who continue to pursue and graduate with advanced degrees in those areas. He has been able to be successful in that pursuit with help from the Meyerhoff Scholars Program for students interested in STEM education.
The program, which has been recognized by the National Science Foundation as a national model, currently has 300 students enrolled in graduate and professional programs and has produced some 600 alumni across the nation. Here are Hrabowski’s four tips on what to look for in an academic institution when you plan to major in STEM:
Look for institutions that have students of color who are high achievers. When visiting a school, parents and prospective students should ask to talk with university students in their junior or senior year who have a 3.0 grade point average or above in their science major. “You want to talk to the students that have made As and Bs in their science and engineering courses,” says Hrabowski, a consultant to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Those people will be in your study groups or could be your tutors. If students of color are earning high grades, then it is likely that the school has been effective at helping them achieve.
The school should have programs to help connect the students to other people. The problem at many institutions is that students are left on their own, says Hrabowski, who was named one of America’s 10 Best College Presidents by Time magazine in 2009. Even when they get scholarship money, students are left to work by themselves. Yet, success in science and engineering will usually require students to learn how to work with other people. “Our success has shown that students who succeed tend to be in special programs that give support … with tutoring and mentoring,” Hrabowski says. Look for institutions that have documented their success on how to give support to African American students.
Look for institutions with diverse programs. The universities that are most effective have developed an approach to encourage and support people working together from different backgrounds. For example, the Meyerhoff Program has students of all races. The goal is to increase the number of African Americans who go on to get M.D.s and Ph.D.s in science. “About 60% of the students in the Meyerhoff program are African Americans, but we have students who are Asian, white, and Hispanic, who all have an interest in addressing the issue of under-representation of women and minorities in science,” says Hrabowski. “Within that program, students from all races have opportunities to study with people from different racial backgrounds.” Connecting with students from other ethnicities will help a student understand how others take an approach to work.
Identify alumni of color who have graduated from that institution in your discipline and get advice from them. “It can be anybody, but it really helps if it is an African American or a person of color,” says Hrabowski. “The student who has been the lonely one in the classroom has had a very different experience. It is very hard for people who have not been in the minority to understand the impact of being one or two [of your race or gender] in a class.” That person will give the student a sense of which professors are most effective at working with students of color and how much studying you have to do to be successful. Ask them if they had a positive experience. Which people at the institution were supportive? Which faculty members were willing to work with them? Their perceptions about the faculty, the work, and suggestions about studying will be helpful.
For more information from Hrabowski read:
Preparing Minority Scientists and Engineers
Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women and Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males– Two books based on the research of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program.