When Dr. Billy Joe Evans was in high school, his parents couldn’t pay for the exam that would permit him to attend college early. So one of his teachers paid. “That’s the kind of commitment we need from the village,” he says, alluding to the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Today a professor in chemistry at the University of Michigan, Evans tries to provide similar kinds of opportunities to young people with a program that not only encourages minority high school students to pursue scientific careers but gives them a taste of what that means and the support they need.
Evans has won many accolades for his work. Last year he was awarded the Chemical Manufacturers Association Catalyst Award, given to outstanding chemistry professors and teachers, and he has been cited as an outstanding academic leader by his local community and the governor of Michigan. But Evans says he is proudest of the fact that since 1981 every Detroit winner of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search has come from his program.
Cheryl Porter is one of many who give Evans credit for their success. “My possession of a B.S. degree in chemistry attests to his ability to motivate students toward careers in science. My current pursuit of a Ph.D. underscores that ability,” Porter says.
Evans founded the “Scholarly Research for Urban/Minority High School Students” program in 1981, in which 200 students have since participated. The catalyst for beginning the program, he said, was seeing many bright young African-American students who came to the university wanting science careers but who didn’t do well. High school teachers select students to participate in Evans’s program less on the basis of their grades than on the basis of whether they can work with and develop relationships with teachers. Usually the students are ninth-graders who live on campus at the University of Michigan during the summer and, if they are successful, return for weekends and vacations until they graduate. Some return even while in college. The program pays for their travel and accommodations.
Unlike some summer programs, this one is not just about exposure to college life. The goal, says Evans, is to have students conduct serious research. “They have projects of their own that they do and the experience helps them to see the time commitment, the kind of lifestyle they would have to live.”
Evans says he received the same kind of nurturing his program provides. “My interest in science evolved out of my interest in playing with things,” Evans said. As a young boy I played with model airplanes, gasoline engines, rubber bands and electric trains.”
“And I cut a lot of grass,” Evans chuckles. He said he experimented with different ways of making his customers’ lawns look green and prosperous, thus learning a little bit of the scientific method. “Cutting grass set the ground for me doing my science.”
Evans says when he got to high school some astute teachers nurtured that natural interest in science. “I had a good high school chemistry teacher, George Espy, a Morehouse graduate, who gave me an enthusiasm for [science]. He … let me teach the class the words I had learned for twenty minutes each week to help me build up my vocabulary,” he recalls.
It was his high school English teacher, Phalba Pitts, who took Evans to take the intercollegiate cooperative exam and paid for it, permitting him to enter college at the age of 16.
“My pipedream … was to attend college at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) but I ended up going to Morehouse on scholarship,” Evans says. “My original goal was to get a degree and return to my hometown to teach so I could help my brothers and sisters go off to college. But when I got [to Morehouse College] I discovered that chemistry was the most challenging program in the curriculum and I wanted a challenge.”
After he graduated summa cum laude in chemistry in 1963, he said. “it was clear that I was going to go to graduate school–I had grown into it.” In 1968 he received a doctorate in physical inorganic-crystal physics from the University of Chicago.
Evans was born in Macon, GA, and was a high school classmate of Otis Redding, the great rhythm and blues singer. The two cultivated their talents along different career paths, with Redding achieving in entertainment, a field traditionally associated with excellence among African Americans. Evans says that by his choice of a life in science, he hopes to show young African Americans that they have other options.
Evans’ remarks m accepting his Chemical Manufacturers Association award convey the spirit of his work and dedication to young people. “I believe that what we principally take note of … is the conversion of the knowledge of boys and girls into the power of men and women.”
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