Supporting Minority Students in Science


Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

At-risk, academically struggling students – especially young minority males – have reached high levels of achievement in STEM fields through a program focused on trust, high expectations, and effective college and career counseling.

This article is a reprint with permission from the author and the College Board of the article “Supporting Minority Students in Science” by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, in Transforming the Educational Experience of Young Men of Color, School Counseling Series, Vol. 1, published by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center and National Office for School Counselor Advocacy, 2012.

When I arrived at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), twenty five years ago, I realized that large numbers of African American male students were not doing well academically, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, who was interested in supporting young black males, we started the Meyerhoff Scholars Program in 1988 to determine ways of increasing the number of African American males succeeding in these disciplines. Research showed then that many of these young black males were not succeeding in high school, and that they were often seen as disruptive and less engaged than other groups. There was evidence also that disproportionately low numbers of these students enrolled in advanced courses, and too few were entering and succeeding in college. It is troubling that research today shows similar results.

For more than twenty years, the Meyerhoff Program – which was broadened early on to include women, students from other minority groups, and majority students interested in diversity issues – has helped students to achieve at the highest levels. Of the 700 students who have graduated from the program, more than 80 percent have gone on to graduate programs, and large numbers have received STEM Ph.D.’s and M.D./Ph.D.’s. Most important, half of the African American students have been male. The approach we have taken with all of the students has been strengths-based, as we are constantly helping students understand those assets they bring to the campus – from resilience and a determination to succeed to being tough-skinned because of previous challenging situations.

Our experience with the Meyerhoff Program has stimulated conversations among admission staff members, faculty, and staff in general about the need to help young African American males interview effectively for admission to the university. The fact is that large numbers of the applications we receive from African Americans are from young women, and we have found that faculty and staff often are more impressed by the enthusiastic and positive approach of these women in interviews. In contrast, young African American men tend to be less communicative and less willing to show enthusiasm. It became clear that we needed to explain to them how important it is when asked questions to demonstrate their passion for science through their answers. In fact, we essentially have been saying to male applicants that a “laid-back” approach will not be successful. Helping these African American males appreciate the need to think about their approach in interviews, in classes, and in preparation for their careers is critically important. It also has been helpful to encourage conversations among advisors, school counselors, and other faculty and staff – of all races – about our approach to giving support to these students, including opportunities for interaction in groups and an emphasis on older black male students supporting younger students. Most important, we know we must ensure that young black males learn to interact with staff and students of all races so they will have broad support networks to help them as they face challenges.

Our experience with the Meyerhoff Program also has taught us the importance of building community among students to help them succeed academically, particularly in STEM. Other key components of the program include (1) peer support, (2) the involvement of caring adults, (3) assembling groups of students to talk freely about what they think and believe, and how they see the environment, (4) empowering students to do well in school, (5) giving students incentives for high achievement, (6) family involvement, and (7) providing community service opportunities – especially mentoring or supporting young boys. We’ve also learned important lessons from interviews with mothers and fathers of African American males in the Meyerhoff Program.1 Though the individual experiences of families varied, many reported that they had emphasized high academic expectations; overcoming adversity; strong limit-setting and discipline; maintenance of family rituals; open, consistent and strong communications; and open discussion of values. Interestingly, we have also learned lessons from some of these parents who can talk about their experiences with other sons who have not been as successful academically. We can often learn more from challenging and difficult cases than we can from successful ones.

Understanding the perspectives of experienced parents of academically successful black males is particularly important for school counselors because they and other educators have assumed many of the roles traditionally performed by parents. School counselors are great examples of positive role models. They can be particularly effective when they give students the chance to talk about their dreams and aspirations or provide them with opportunities to write about their experiences and thoughts. One challenge we face is that many young black men are not accustomed to expressing their feelings. However, once students trust a school counselor, they are often more willing and sufficiently comfortable to say what they truly think and feel.

It is important to help students dream broadly about possible careers – beyond the typical goals of sports and entertainment. One particularly effective strategy involves school counselors bringing in African American males from different professions to talk with the young men about their own stories, especially the challenges they faced when they were young. School counselors can also help students prepare for future careers by providing appropriate reading materials and opportunities for them to write and talk about what they’ve read, especially in relationship to their own lives. It’s important for these students to know that it is possible to beat the odds.

At UMBC, we’ve worked closely with hundreds of high-achieving minority college students in the Meyerhoff Program, and simultaneously with a much younger group of at-risk students in the Choice Program, which we began in 1987 through the Shriver Center at UMBC (named for Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver). UMBC students provide round-the-clock supervision for the young boys (mostly center-city African American youth), empowering them and engaging their families through a variety of services. Youth who enter the program typically fall into two categories: some are first-time offenders, and others come from households where drug use and other factors have put them at high risk. What we’ve learned from working with these young men over the past twenty years is similar to lessons learned in the Meyerhoff Program and with other African American males on campus. Key lessons include (1) teaching young boys and young men to listen to and analyze the advice they receive, (2) encouraging them to ask good questions, (3) helping them understand not to consider themselves victims, but rather to feel empowered to take ownership of their future, (4) working with students to identify their strengths, and (5) helping them recognize their ability to manage their own lives despite all kinds of problems. Giving African American students opportunities to write musical lyrics, for example, and to present their thoughts about important messages expressed through rhythm can be both inspiring and instructive.

The most important lesson we’ve learned through working with these different populations – high-achieving black males or first-time offenders – is that counselors and teachers can be supportive of these young black males by helping them learn to trust them, by letting students know how much they care, by setting high expectations for the students, by constantly emphasizing how much they believe in them, by focusing on the importance of hard work and respect for authority, and finally, by helping them develop a sense of self and a vision for their future.

1. Details of our conversations with parents, along with other lessons learned through the Meyerhoff program, are reported in our books on raising academically successful children, Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Kenneth I. Maton, Monica I. Greene, and Geoffrey L. Greif (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2002), and Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Kenneth I. Maton, and Geoffrey L. Greif (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1998).