The state of education in the United States is the subject of widespread and justifiable hand-wringing. While good and bad public schools can be found anywhere, most will agree that the true victims of an educational system gone awry are the overwhelmingly minority student populations of low-income schools. These students are regularly shortchanged when it comes to what they learn and what society hopes and expects of them.
Impressions about colleges and universities are often not much better. What gets in the news are “hot” topics like the Duke University men’s lacrosse scandal. Students behaving badly are easy targets, and the media love any story that includes athletes and sex. Positive stories about students doing good works just don’t get any airtime in the “constant crisis” era of 24-hour television news. The bulk of “positive” coverage about college students these days is related to Hurricane Katrina relief and rebuilding.
But there is another side of the coin: College undergraduates who excel academically at levels far beyond the public’s imagination and awareness. Under the radar are pipeline programs like the Leadership Alliance, the 14-year-old program headquartered at Brown University, whose mission is to create pathways to graduate study for minority college students. At its recent annual national symposium, more than 300 undergraduates representing nearly 150 colleges and universities from around the country gathered to present the results of their summer research projects.
Their work requires extreme discipline and demanding attention, and is conducted well beyond the spotlight. Their research is not as sexy or exciting as some of the big-time, attention-grabbing studies. However, they work on the frontiers of research, with serious, earnest intent. These students dedicate their summers to intensive research and work collaboratively with university professors in labs, libraries and field settings. At the symposium, these students revealed their work, which ranged from the expression of oncogenes in leukemia to electron microscopic studies of nanowires.
Older generations inherently wonder about what lies in store for the next generation. Will they be up to the challenges of a world that appears to have gone completely mad? Are they ready to dedicate themselves to the hard work necessary to accomplish great deeds? Will they have the smarts, wisdom and strength society so badly needs.
The students in Leadership Alliance represent that next generation. They inspire because they demonstrate the great tradition of building on what has gone before them. They are the future, and that future is bright. Their research potential holds great promise, and they make real the expectation of future breakthroughs in a wide range of academic disciplines. Alliance students are already leaders on their campuses, and this leadership ability will only grow as they develop more commitment, more knowledge and more wisdom.
Minorities are sadly under-represented in the ranks of the university professoriate. That state of affairs does not have to be the case. After more than a decade, the alliance is closing in on a grand threshold. We will have generated 100 minority doctorates. Is that number going to make an epic difference? Probably not. But there is only one way to get from where we are to where we might be. We must create a vastly richer pipeline of highly qualified scholars, researchers and teachers, and we must do it one student at a time. These students will be the mentors for the next generation and will contribute to society in desperately needed ways. The enormous talent and commitment of these young people, supported by the efforts of the Leadership Alliance, will get these students where they are clearly capable of going. The Alliance’s efforts are true good news. It needs to be magnified a hundredfold and more.
Stephen J. Nelson is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State College and is Senior Scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. Valerie Wilson is associate dean of Brown’s graduate school, clinical professor of community health and executive director of the Leadership Alliance.
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