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Longtime University President’s Legacy: A Diverse New Generation in STEM

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BALTIMORE — Late one night in the fall of 2020, when Kizzmekia Corbett learned the vaccine she had helped design was highly effective against the coronavirus, there was only one person she wanted to call: Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

At 34, Dr. Corbett was the first Black woman to achieve such a feat, a groundbreaking development in the fight against the deadliest pandemic in recent U.S. history. But all she could think about was the man she had met as an 18-year-old freshman at the university, who immediately recognized her thick Southern accent and her potential to make history.

“I had to call someone who understood all that I had been through — what it meant to even get a Ph.D., what it meant to traverse this space,” said Dr. Corbett, now an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “So I called Freeman.”

Dr. Hrabowski, who retired last week after leading U.M.B.C. for 30 years, is renowned in academic circles for transforming what was once a regional commuter school into the country’s strongest pipeline of Black graduates in science, technology, engineering and related fields.

The school’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, whose alumni include Dr. Corbett, has served as a barrier-breaking model for colleges nationwide. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Berkeley, are among those that have replicated it.

As the nation’s top producer of Black undergraduates who go on to complete a Ph.D. in the natural sciences or engineering, U.M.B.C. has cracked one of the most vexing conundrums in higher education — the lack of Black students excelling in the sciences.

For these achievements, Dr. Hrabowski acquired something like celebrity status over the course of his tenure. He has written four books, given thousands of speeches, made it onto influencer lists and seen hundreds of graduates go on to obtain professorships and other positions at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

But Dr. Corbett’s call that night was also a testament to a lesser-known but arguably as important part of Dr. Hrabowski’s legacy: serving as a mentor to a cross-section of leaders in science and academia, many of whom have come to emulate his style as much as his substance.

When the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced a $1.5 billion program to support the next generation of diverse faculty in science, technology, engineering and math, it named the initiative the “Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program” to make the mission clear, said Leslie Vosshall, its vice president and chief scientific officer. “If every institution took his recipe,” she said of Dr. Hrabowski, “didn’t change any ingredients, didn’t cut corners, that would transform STEM education in the United States.”

College and university presidents across the country point to “Freeman lessons” that are modeled in classrooms and boardrooms every day.

James P. Clements, president of Clemson University and an alumnus of U.M.B.C., recalled how Dr. Hrabowski had coached him for the interview that led to his first presidency, at West Virginia University. “I wouldn’t be a college president if it weren’t for Freeman,” he said, “and 14 years later, he’s still coaching me.”

Paula A. Johnson, the president of Wellesley College, met Dr. Hrabowski years ago as a young faculty member at Harvard, when he was receiving an honorary degree and she was assigned to act as his host. He had specifically asked for a professor of color.

“He is always thinking about his role, not just in terms of the honor he’s getting, but who else he can include and advance. He is continuously paying it forward, in big and small ways,” she said.

Starting this week, Dr. Hrabowski, 71, will continue that work in a number of advising positions, including as the inaugural centennial fellow at the American Council on Education, which represents 1,700 colleges and universities.

“There are many ways to think about influence, and some of them are more glittery than others,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the council. “Freeman has actually reached into all of our hearts and asked us to remember what education is for. He has been the moral compass for all of us, and that makes him the most influential leader of higher education in our generation.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Hrabowski came of age in the thick of the Jim Crow era. The notion that Black children didn’t deserve a quality education brought out the fighter in the self-described “fat, nerdy kid who could only attack a math problem” at a very young age.

He was 12 when he participated in the historic Children’s March inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He was among the hundreds of boys and girls arrested while they marched for equal rights, and spent five days in jail.

Dr. Hrabowski has largely declined to discuss the details of what he saw and experienced in the Birmingham jail. Some of it will forever remain unspeakable, he said. But in an interview, he recalled a visit from Dr. King.

“What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born,” Dr. Hrabowski remembered him telling the jailed children.

Dr. Hrabowski credits his perseverance to his upbringing in 1960s Birmingham — from the small but vibrant middle-class neighborhoods that molded him and other Black leaders, including Angela Davis and Condoleezza Rice, to his church, where funerals were held for three of the four Black girls who died after a white supremacist terrorist attack.

“Our parents and teachers and ministers insisted that we not define ourselves as victims — in spite of the overt racism all around us,” he said. “Rather, we were taught to believe in ourselves and to strive to be twice as good, because we knew the world was not fair.”

He went on to attend Hampton Institute, a historically Black college, earning a degree in mathematics at 19. In graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Hrabowski said, he learned “how lonely a student of color can be in a classroom.”

He received a master’s degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in higher education administration and statistics there, and began his career in higher education administration. Later, he moved to Coppin State University, a small, historically Black school in Baltimore, where his reputation as a change agent who championed students, even at the expense of offending adults, put him on U.M.B.C’s radar.

It was a young institution, the first campus in Maryland to accept all races, craving leadership that matched its ambitions.

When Dr. Hrabowski arrived at U.M.B.C. in 1987 as vice provost, one of the first questions he asked was why an aspiring research university was graduating only double-digit numbers of Black students with science degrees. It was 20 years after integration, and the average Black G.P.A. was barely 2.0, compared with 2.50 for white students; there was at least a 20-point gap between the graduation rates for the two races.

The following year, he convinced the Maryland philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff to financially back his quest to prove that with the right guidance and resources, Black students could excel in science in large numbers at a predominantly white university.

“It had not been done before in the nation,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “People did not think it was possible, because they had not seen it.”

The two co-founded the Meyerhoff program, which has since graduated more than 1,400 students, most of them African Americans, in science and engineering. Its graduates, who receive financial scholarships, academic guidance, research experience and mentoring, fan across the nation to the most prestigious doctoral programs and prominent research spaces.

There is no longer a graduation gap between Black and white students at U.MB.C., but Dr. Hrabowski doesn’t want to be remembered only as the “guy who produced Blacks in science.” He is equally proud that the school produced the first Black speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who was also the first woman to hold that position.

From the time he became president in 1992, his goal was to create and model a culture of “inclusive excellence” — in which all students are supported in the ways they need to succeed.

The U.M.B.C. campus has grown to 675 acres to incorporate $1.2 billion worth of construction, a separate research park with more than 120 biotech labs and cybersecurity companies. But on a recent day, it wasn’t the glitzy new buildings that Dr. Hrabowski gushed over. It was the campus’s main thoroughfare, Academic Row, where more than 100 flags represent the nations of origin of the school’s roughly 14,000 students.

“It’s hard for a Black president to say, ‘I care about all races’ and be heard,” he said.

But he was.

Kaitlyn Sadtler followed her sister there from a rural suburb in Maryland. She had never thought about becoming a Ph.D.; she was just grateful to get into an affordable state college. But she now has advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and M.I.T. Dr. Sadtler is leading a 10,000-participant N.I.H. study on Covid-19 antibodies at the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Corbett helped design what became the Moderna vaccine.

But reflecting on her time at U.M.B.C., Ms. Sadtler, pointed to memories that had little to do with science: her half-Japanese roommate who coaxed her into eating rice, which she had vowed to never eat again after being raised on Minute Rice; and the beloved Black president who knew every student’s name and major.

“I come from a very white area, so I like to say U.M.B.C. started my education on multiple levels,” she said. “I was getting exposed to new things, but I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or out of place.”

Twenty-six years into Dr. Hrabowski’s efforts to build an inclusive community, he got a painful reality check.

In 2018, the school faced a class-action lawsuit accusing it of violating Title IX, the federal law that prevents sex discrimination, by working with county law enforcement officials to cover up reported sexual assaults. The lawsuit roiled the campus, spurring student protests and drawing furor from alumni.

Dr. Hrabowski was invited to a meeting on campus that September, with an unusual request: Do not speak.

Instead, he was asked to listen as female students discussed their history with sexual harassment. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020, but the issues it brought to light remained a subject of intense scrutiny and led to changes at the university.

“It was a very dark moment,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “We may have been in compliance with the law, but it became clear that we needed to do much, much more.”

He has drawn on the few fraught episodes of his tenure to help guide other presidents navigate their own challenges.

David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, turned to Dr. Hrabowski a few years ago, when he was starting an online degree program at the university. It spurred contentious debate among faculty who were concerned it could diminish the Morehouse brand.

He took an initial vote on the measure, and it passed by a small margin. Dr. Hrabowski told him to “keep the debate going,” Dr. Thomas recalled. The final vote was more than 70 percent in support.

“Without consultation with Freeman, I would have taken that first vote with a bunch of abstentions and said we got a positive result,” Dr. Thomas said. “But I think we benefited by continuing the conversation. That was a ‘Freeman lesson’.”

Dr. Hrabowski’s successor is Valerie Sheares Ashby, a chemist and the former dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. She became U.M.B.C.’s first female president on Aug. 1.

Years ago, Dr. Sheares Ashby got a solid vote of confidence from Dr. Hrabowski, who would become one of her most trusted mentors, before she had even led a department. At the end of their first meeting, he turned to the young faculty member and said: “You’re going to be a president — a great president — someday.”

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Four Students Are Injured in Shooting Near Philadelphia High School

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Four teenage students were injured in a shooting near a high school in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, just after classes were dismissed for Thanksgiving break, the authorities said.

The students, two 15-year-old girls and two 16-year-old boys, were taken to hospitals and were in stable condition, John Stanford, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The shooting happened just after 11:30 a.m. outside a beauty salon and about a block from Overbrook High School. Deputy Commissioner Stanford said a group of students had been standing outside the salon when someone inside a passing silver S.U.V. fired at them.

The police did not name the victims. One 15-year-old girl suffered gunshot wounds to her left shoulder and left thigh, and the other 15-year-old girl suffered a gunshot wound to her left shoulder, the police said in a statement. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the left hand and had a graze wound on his face, and the other 16-year-old boy suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg.

The police said that no arrests had been made and no weapon had been recovered. Deputy Commissioner Stanford said it was too early in the investigation to know if the students had been targeted.

“Just another incident of gun violence in our city,” he said at the news conference.

Gun violence in Philadelphia has been particularly bad this year. More than 1,400 people in the city had been shot as of August, a higher toll than in the much larger cities of New York and Los Angeles. Officials are struggling to respond to the number of guns on the street. For every illegal gun seized by the police in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2019, about three guns were bought or sold legally, according to a city report released this year.

“We’re going to have to have some real serious help to get our arms around our city problem with these guns,” Tony B. Watlington, the Philadelphia schools superintendent, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

In September, a 14-year-old student, Nicolas Elizalde, was killed and four others were injured in a shooting near Roxborough High School. The five teenagers were leaving the field after a football scrimmage when the shooting occurred. Roxborough High School is about five miles north of Overbrook.

Four people between the ages of 15 and 21 have been arrested in connection with the Roxborough High School shooting.

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Sizing Up the First ‘Normal’ School Year

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The busy holiday season is here, and before we know it, many of us will be gathering for parties, visiting relatives and ringing in the New Year with friends. (Now is a good time to stock up on at-home rapid tests and high-quality masks and to consider getting an updated booster, if you haven’t already.)

Schools are also winding down the first half of what, by many accounts, was the first truly back-to-normal school year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

As we approach winter break, we thought we’d take a look at how the school year is unfolding during this stage of the pandemic. I spoke with my colleague Sarah Mervosh, who covers education.

What has the school year looked like so far?

Masks are not required in an estimated 99 percent of districts, according to Burbio, a school tracking site. I think by and large there’s a recognition in schools that the coronavirus is here to stay, and we’re learning to live with it.

Last year, we heard a lot about behavioral issues and mental health issues. Students were still adjusting from the traumas and the disruptions of the pandemic and adjusting to being back in the classroom. But this year, I’m hearing less about that and more about the urgency around helping students recover academically.

How are students doing academically?

During the pandemic, kids learned less. We got a sense of how seriously they were affected this fall with the results of a key national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests fourth and eighth graders in math and reading. The results were pretty devastating.

Eighth grade math scores fell in 49 out of 50 states. Only about a quarter of eighth graders were proficient, down from about a third in 2019. Fourth graders fared a little better: There were declines in 41 states in math, with just 36 percent of fourth graders proficient in the subject, down from 41 percent in 2019. Reading ability declined a bit less across the board, but scores still fell in more than half the states. In both fourth and eighth grade, only about one in three kids were proficient.

The stakes are high for kids because establishing literacy in early elementary school is important for their future success in high school and beyond. Similarly, it’s important for eighth graders to be set up for success as high school freshmen, a crucial transition year. And districts and schools are on a tight timetable to use pandemic relief money to help kids catch up.

How so?

There were three rounds of pandemic relief funding, and the last one, at $123 billion, was the federal government’s single largest investment in American schools. That’s about $2,400 per student. At least 20 percent of the money has to be spent on academic recovery and needs to be allocated by 2024. This is a big year for actually spending the money and getting the interventions that kids need.

What approaches are working?

There has been a lot of focus on tutoring. When done in small groups of three to four students with a trained tutor multiple times a week during the school day, it can be quite effective. It can be even more effective than lowering class sizes, for example, or summer school.

Some experts have advocated extending the school day or year, and lots of places are doing summer school. No one strategy is going to be the thing that is potent enough to help kids recover.

What about the argument that every child experienced the pandemic, so if they’re all a little behind, it might make less of a difference?

This is a very important question. I can see why it’s appealing to say, “Well, everyone was affected, so why does it really matter? This whole cohort of children is sort of in a similar place.” But that’s not actually true.

We know that in fourth grade math, for example, Black, Hispanic and Native American students lost more ground than white and Asian students. This deepened divides in outcomes, because white and Asian students were already scoring at a higher level for many reasons, which include structural societal advantages. And we are also seeing a troubling drop-off among the country’s lowest-performing students, particularly among younger students and in reading. So it is the very students who were struggling most coming into the pandemic who were most affected, and will now need the most help.

What does the future look like?

The pandemic and everything that came with it disrupted kids’ lives in huge ways. So that means that this recovery is going to need to be long-term. I’ve talked to people who are concerned that one day, when this is all sort of in the rearview mirror, we’re going to forget that the pandemic happened and we’re going to blame some kids for being behind. Or we’re going to say, “Well, these kids recovered from the pandemic easily. Why didn’t those kids?” It’s important to remember that some kids have a higher mountain to climb. They have a longer path to recovery, and this is not going to be something that is fixed overnight.

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We recently asked students how being back in the classroom felt this year. Thanks to all of you who wrote in.

“It’s really stressful. I’m growing more nervous, anxious and stressed constantly. I sleep less, constantly worrying about everything and nothing. I feel like I have no relaxation time, that I can’t breathe. Covid times has made me incredibly anxious, and I don’t know how to calm down. My mind is too active.” — Yuxuan, Paris

“The school year started off really strong, but around mid-September the overall atmosphere of my campus changed drastically. Everyone began to suddenly slump into a deep depressive state and fall behind in their work. Professors were affected, too. Many of them would come to class drained and not even remotely enthusiastic about what they were teaching. I would hear students talk about failing back-to-back tests and just not caring.” — Nicholas L., Rohnert Park, Calif.

“The school year hasn’t been completely terrible, but it hasn’t been perfect. I feel like lots of students lost the ability to socially mature, resulting in a kind of split between their maturity level and actual grade level. I was in the seventh grade when everything stopped so I missed a chunk of middle school. Returning to school has been hard especially because I lost so much motivation and I never had the desire to really get it back. My biggest concern is that I won’t be prepared to enter adulthood because there was a gap in adolescent socializing.” — Zen James, Miami

“Overall, I would say that I am thrilled to be back in school and am having a fun and enriching experience. Seeing the full faces of my teachers and peers — and being forced to roll out of bed instead of opening a Zoom meeting on my phone — has definitely helped concepts in the classroom stick. For me, the larger concern is the decay of my healthy habits. Covid (and the online school) enabled me to sit in my room for hours on end, practically developing an entertainment dependency. I often scroll through my phone or watch videos for hours, and there are many times I glance at the clock in awe at how much time has flown right by me.” — Jake Glasser, Mercer Island, Wash.

“My school year so far has been difficult. I’ve noticed that I’ve distanced myself from my peers. I’m usually a hard-driven student with a strict schedule that I push myself to follow. Ever since the pandemic began and my school was pushed online, my will to stick to that schedule diminished. I’ve never felt burnout this way before Covid.” — Presha Kandel, Conroe, Texas


R.S.V.

Monkeypox


Thanks for reading. We’ll be off Friday for Thanksgiving. Stay safe this holiday, and we’ll be back Monday. — Jonathan

Email your thoughts to virusbriefing@nytimes.com.

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Gratitude for Arts and Science Educators

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This month, as we’re thinking about gratitude, I’m reflecting on the tremendous impact that educators have had on my life. I would not be where I am today without the many teachers, counselors, librarians, and mentors that have lifted me up, and, now as an educator and mentor myself, I hope to pass that encouragement on to the next generation of students.

From the teachers that pushed me to do my best in class to the guidance counselors that helped me apply to universities, I am grateful that so many people in my life helped me become a first-generation college student, and now a successful artist and scientist. Despite attending a Title 1 school in Memphis, Tennessee with defunded arts programs and a 95% math proficiency fail rate, my educators were dedicated to ensuring my peers and I had every opportunity in STEM and the Arts that they could manage. In my senior year, I received a full scholarship to attend American University in Washington, DC as a Computer Science major.

I quickly realized that I was set up for failure. As a first-generation college student, 900 miles away from my family for the first time, I was already trying to get my bearings, but the real struggles came in my introductory STEM courses. I was an eager and accomplished learner through grade school, and I was in the university’s honors program on a scholarship, so why did it feel like everyone was miles ahead of me every time I stepped foot in a STEM class? Thankfully, I had many professors and advisors that took me under their wings and helped me ‘catch up’ in math and science while also fostering my interests in arts and design as a corollary to my STEM work. Because of their willingness to mentor me, I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science and left DC for graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where I earned an M.S. in Lighting in 2021 and am currently a Ph.D. student.

Through all of my experiences, I’ve found that both the arts and sciences are incredibly important components of a well-rounded education. I also understand that these programs are historically underserved, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students. The Arts[HA1]  teach students creativity and confidence, and STEM teaches students problem-solving skills and technological literacy. When these two subjects are left out of a child’s education, they miss out on key life skills and opportunities to explore potential passions and careers. I am so thankful for the educators in my life that enriched my educational journey with opportunities in STEM and the A[HA2] rts, and I hope to provide those opportunities back to more children.

As the reigning Miss United States, I am given the opportunity to nationally advocate for a cause of my choice. I have chosen to advocate for the importance of STEM and Arts education through my nonprofit Art Technically. Every child deserves a chance to grow as an artist and scientist regardless of their background. I have grown so much as an artist and scientist thanks to the dedicated educators that helped guide me. As a mentor to students in both STEM and the Arts, I am helping them grow as well-rounded individuals prepared to do great things for the world, just as my teachers did for me. That opportunity is what I am most grateful for.

Lily K. Donaldson is the reigning Miss United States and a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Built Ecologies within the Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems (EBESS). Originally from Memphis, she’s passionate about advancing educational equity within traditionally underserved communities in the South and beyond, especially related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and Arts education. She’s the founder of Art Technically, a nonprofit dedicated to providing STEM and Arts educational opportunities to students at Title 1 and rural K-12 schools.




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