Freeman A. Hrabowski III
UMBC

The book cover looks like that of any other science book, to be honest: White man showing a multicultural group something that looks like displaced atoms. However, Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement is a little more than meets the eye. 

“It’s a great conversation starter,” Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, chuckles.

The mathematician and educator explained to The Root that the structure being examined on the cover is actually the design for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The white man is his colleague Michael Summers, who, Hrabowski boasts, produces one of the “largest numbers of black students who go on to get Ph.D.s in biochemistry in the country.” There’s also an African-American man and one of Hrabowski’s own students, who, he discloses, is a Korean immigrant.

“People often asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you just have black kids?’ The power in science in America is still in the hands of white men, heavily in the hands of white men,” Hrabowski explains. “And I wanted to make the point that scientists in this country have this opportunity, white guys, in addition to the women who are doing it, to make a difference in producing students of all races.”

Holding Fast to Dreams is part biographical, part almost instructional, detailing to readers the steps Hrabowski took to turn his university into one of the leading research institutions that produce some of the highest numbers of African-American graduates that go on to get Ph.D.s in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas.

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“Dr. King’s dream, and America’s dream should be, that students of all races, those from this country and people who come to this country from other places, will learn how to work effectively together to solve the problems of the world,” he says.

“So Holding Fast to Dreams? This is about people of all races coming together to solve the problems of humankind. That is the dream,” he adds.

But how exactly does Hrabowski connect the battle for accomplishment in STEM, particularly among minorities (i.e., black people) and the civil rights movement?

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It’s quite simple. The educator is a firm believer that each of us is a product of our childhood experiences, and his childhood in the ’60s in Birmingham, Ala., was obviously informed by the movement and heavily influenced by the ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. when, as a 12-year-old, Hrabowski took part in the famed Children’s Crusade and spent five grueling nights in jail for his participation.

“[I] had a chance to see what it would mean for children to be empowered to think about having a chance to have an impact on their own destiny. And that’s a part of the title of the book Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade … to STEM Achievement and that’s the essence of the book.

“How do we empower young people to believe in themselves in such a way that they can excel in education in general and in the STEM areas in particular?” Hrabowski says.

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The suggestions laid out in the book are quite simple and boil down to building a community with an almost open exchange of ideas, with trust and empowerment of one another at the core.

“[At UMBC,] we worked to build programs that would build communities, the same way that I learned as a child in the civil rights movement that there’s strength in building community among students, of teaching them how to support each other,” Hrabowski says.

“Unfortunately in STEM often there is a spirit of almost cutthroat and unhealthy competition. So students don’t help each other, but rather simply compete against each other and don’t give support to each other, and as a result, it leads to people not learning from each other,” he says.

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One such example of a program that works, he says, is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which he co-founded, which has turned out numerous, successful African-American students who go on to earn doctorates in STEM disciplines.

“If you look at some of the most profound discoveries in science in the world you’ll see that those discoveries were made through collaborative learning, through collaborative effort, through interdisciplinary [study] and collaboration,” the mathematician adds.

 Staff and faculty, Hrabowski reveals, implemented much of the same sense of community, as well.

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“The fundamental question that any university needs to ask is how well do we know our students? And who is giving the students support? Are students working to support each other? What’s the relationship to the student’s background, the student’s habits, the student’s goals, the student’s mindset and the performance of the student?” Hrabowski says.

“Too often, we often see grades and faces without knowing anything about the students, and what my university and colleagues really have worked to do is to know the students, both in terms of their preparation, their attitudes, their work habits and, quite frankly, to give them the support they need to ensure they excel,” he says.

“At the core of our theory of change has been empowering youth to take ownership of their education in the same way that Dr. King empowered the children of Birmingham to believe that we could have some say in our own destiny,” he adds. “Before Dr. King talked to me as a child, I always thought I had to be in a school with second-hand books. He was the one who said to me that tomorrow could be better than today.”

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Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.