Download the 28 May 2024 Changemaker interview

Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, mathematician Freeman Hrabowski was moved to join the civil rights moment after hearing Martin Luther King Jr speak. Even as a child, he saw the desperate need to make change. He would go on to do just that — at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, one of the leading pathways to success for Black students in STEM subjects in the United States.

Freeman is the subject of the first in a new series of Q&As in Nature celebrating ‘Changemakers’ in science — individuals who fight racism and champion inclusion. He spoke to us about his about his life, work and legacy.

Career Q&A: I had my white colleagues walk in a Black student’s shoes for a day

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TRANSCRIPT

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Benjamin Thompson

Hi, Benjamin here with a Podcast Extra. Sometimes in science change only happens when people step up and take on the establishment. And in this episode, I'm going to be speaking with one of those changemakers. Freeman Hrabowski, a mathematician from Alabama, was moved to join the civil rights movement as a child by Martin Luther King. Even in his youth, he saw the desperate need to make change. And he would go on to do just that, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he co founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, one of the leading pathways to success for Black students in STEM subjects in the United States. The program offers counseling, mentoring, and direct access to research, allowing students to experience the world of science firsthand and prepare them for a life in academia. Freeman is the subject of a new series of Q&As is in Nature, celebrating changemakers in science, individuals who fight racism and champion inclusion. And to kick off the season, I called him up to talk about his life, his work and his legacy.

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Benjamin Thompson

Freeman Hrabowski, thank you so much for joining me today.

Freeman Hrabowski

I'm delighted to be with you.

Benjamin Thompson

So let's take things right back, if we may. So you grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. And you've said that you've had a love of education all the way back there, right. Your parents were educators. And that will I'll call it maths, you might call it math was really, you know, your favorite subject. And of course, you know, this is an possibly important time for the civil rights movement in America. I mean, what were your experiences of education, like at this young age?

Freeman Hrabowski

Sure, my parents were teachers. And we were talking about ideas all the time and reading books. And I suppose I am especially interested in mathematics, because at a point, America turned to math as a challenging area for citizens. And this was during Sputnik and something came out called the New Mathematics, and teachers had to be retrained, reeducated. And my mother, who had been an English teacher, decided to be one of the brave ones, and became also a math teacher and I was her guinea pig. And from that background, two things happened. One, I was a part of the civil rights movement, I did hear Dr. King ask the children to march and I did march, and I did spend time in jail as a child activist, and then I became a speaker, representing the children who had marched in the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. And secondly, I had decided by then that I wanted to teach mathematics, and that I wanted to get more children excited about math and science.

Benjamin Thompson

You mentioned Dr King there. I mean, he seems to play a really important role in your early life.

Freeman Hrabowski

I had been in church and I heard him speak. And he asked us, he asked the kids, if they wanted a better education, and we did, we had some great teachers, but the signals to children of colour were signals that said, we were not as smart as the other kids — as the white kids, you see. We were given what's called hand-me-down books, you get books from the white schools after they'd finished with them. And it was not a positive message. And I wanted to see what it would take to be able to go to any school, and to do the things that white children could do, to go into the movies and to drink out of water fountains, all the things people hear about. I should tell you that my students have always said, 'Doc, we never thought you were that old'. Because when people think about people marching with Dr. King, they, of course they they are that old, and if you look at the statistics in our own country, 70% of people in the world today have not been born then. So as I tell this story, I may as well be talking about the Civil War, because these are things that happen well before most people were born.

Benjamin Thompson

And you say that your time, was it a week, you spent in jail was particularly harrowing, because you were very, very young at the time, but it's gonna be harrowing at any time.

Freeman Hrabowski

I was 12. And it was five days and I was a precocious kid with older parents. And so I was helping to take care of some kids. I was about to go to what we call the tenth grade here, I was finishing the ninth grade, I was ahead of my time. And it was not a positive experience, as you might imagine, but it taught us that even children could have an impact on their own lives, to be empowered to believe we had some agency that our voices could be heard. And the message was clearly that we wanted a better education and we wanted all the rights that other children in America, were experiencing every day.

Benjamin Thompson

And when your parents came to get you out. What do you remember about that moment?

Freeman Hrabowski

It was a wonderful moment to be immediately changed into a moment of disappointment because the school system had decided that children who marched would be suspended and perhaps expelled from school. I was an A-student, and it took a week of being in the courts of that decision being reviewed at the Federal level. And they did put us back in school. They did.

Benjamin Thompson

I've heard you speak in a few places and say that really everyone is a product of their experiences.

Freeman Hrabowski

Yes.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean, what imprint did this time leave on you, do you think?

Freeman Hrabowski

I think the point that my parents taught me and my community and my school was that we didn't have time to be victims, that we didn't have time to feel sorry for ourselves, that we could make a difference in what was happening in our country, that a part of the strength of democracy is that everyone can be involved. And so as I've worked with students over the past 50 plus years, that has been a part of my message that let's not take the time to feel sorry for ourselves, let's find ways of getting the knowledge, of understanding the challenges of developing strategies to help children to have better lives.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean, you took that and run with it. I think it's fair to say you saw academia through as well, right? Master's degree PhD, you worked in academia as well. I mean, what was the moment that you realized that you yourself wanted to make a change to science to improve, you know, levels of diversity.

Freeman Hrabowski

As soon as I had graduated from my undergraduate institution at Hampton University in Virginia, I went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and I was typically the only Black kid in the classes. And that was never a faculty member of colour. And there were no tenured women faculty members at that time, there was one woman faculty member with a PhD, but she was not tenure track. And it was very clear that women and people of colour were underrepresented in the sciences and mathematics in America. And I knew that I wanted to change that, that I wanted other people as time went on to see that people of all backgrounds could excel in math.

Benjamin Thompson

And did you have an idea how you wanted to change it? I mean that's quite a task, right? To say, 'D'you know what, let's fix this'.

Freeman Hrabowski

So it's something I've thought about for 50 plus years, and I decided at some point that I wanted to experiment. And we at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is a predominantly white university with students from 100 countries, I should say, that we wanted to experiment and the philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff, who by the way is now 100 years old, was interested in helping with issues involving Black children, and particularly Black males, because they are always at the bottom, when thinking about the juvenile justice system when thinking about what happens in schools, and needing support from people. And so we put those ideas together and created the Meyerhoff Program in 1988, designed to not simply help students to make it through a program just to graduate but to excel.

Benjamin Thompson

What was the landscape then, in terms of percentages of people from different backgrounds go into university before the programme set up.

Freeman Hrabowski

When I talk to audiences about the evolution of higher education in America. I often asked the question 'What percent of Americans had earned a bachelor's degree in the mid 60s?' and most people have no idea that it's only 10%. At that time, things were broken down into Black and white. And for whites, it turns out, only 11% of whites had earned a bachelor's degree and only 3% of Blacks. Today, because of a number of pieces of legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, the Voting Rights Act, we're up to about a third of Americans with four-year college degrees. And if you break it down by race now, we have much more variation — we can talk about for whites over-25 with bachelor's degrees, we are up to about 41/42%. For Blacks, we're not quite a 30%, high 20s. For Latinos, Hispanics, the fastest growing group in our country, it's only about 20%. For the Asian-Americans, it's about 50%. But it varies depending on the particular group you're talking about. So at that time, when you talk about my being in grad school, we still only talking 10 to 15% of Americans in general, with a college degree. And then when you get to performance in science, the percentages were much smaller, as you might imagine.

Benjamin Thompson

So it's 1988. And you're working as the vice provost at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, so UMBC. What's this university like them for people who aren't familiar with it, and its setup?

Freeman Hrabowski

It was founded at the time of the development of young universities in America and that is in the mid 60s after the Higher Education Act, which said we wanted to educate many more people in general in the liberal arts broadly. So UMBC the charter came in 1963, first students came in in 1966. I moved to that university about 20 years later, in 1988. And it was predominantly white. But it did have students from different backgrounds. It's the only university in Maryland founded at such a time that African Americans could be admitted from the beginning. Most institutions founded in the 19th Century in our country, were primarily for whites. And there was institutions called historically black institutions founded after slavery, where Blacks would attend. But this was a from the beginning an integrated institution. And just to give you American culture, it is adjacent to a jurisdiction, which was Columbia, Maryland, Howard County, which was the only place in the state of Maryland, where Blacks and whites could marry in the 60s. And so many of our students were the products of interracial marriages. Many of our students today are the products of people from diplomacy, from the intelligence community, from the military. And as you know, a number of those people marry people from other countries. And so when you walk around the campus at UMBC, today, even it, feels like the Plaza of Nations at the UN in New York, you see all races, and it's very much of the world. Of the world. Yes.

Benjamin Thompson

And let's talk about then the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. So you set this up, tell me how it came about.

Freeman Hrabowski

We saw at that time that large numbers of African Americans were not doing well in school in general. And when I looked at the data, it was clear that the number one reason was that many wanted to be doctors or scientists, and they were not doing well in chemistry, and the other science courses. And at the same time, this philanthropist whom I mentioned, Robert Meyerhoff, was interested in doing something to help Black students, and I told you Black males, because he saw everything on TV, he said was either about sports, or something that was about handcuffs. And he had already been working on some programmes for women, and he wanted to make a difference for young men. And so we married those two ideas. And so he and I are considered co-founders of that program. And for the last 35 plus years, we've worked on that effort. And he gave us the first initial funding, and then we got funding from the National Agencies. And the program has now educated well over 1,000 students,

Benjamin Thompson

And what was the fundamental aim of this programme, then?

Freeman Hrabowski

The aim of the programme was to show our country that a predominantly white university could recruit and educate students of colour, starting with African Americans now from all backgrounds who could not only succeed in science or engineering, but who could excel and who would be so excited about the work they want to go on to graduate school. And we have a special interest in PhDs because in the minority communities, people tend to think about MDs only. They tend to think about people becoming physicians. Too often don't know a lot about what it means to get a PhD. And we have to help people understand that these PhDs these scientists are doing noble work, so nobel that the people they help, may be people they never see, that's a different notion from helping each patient, you see. And the scientists have to be people who have this amazing intellectual curiosity, to ask good questions who are working to solve problems, you see. And it was a bold goal, because people were saying at that time, 'let's just try to get some people to graduate in science'. And we said, 'No, let's make it much higher', I would use the words from one of your countrymen from Browning, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" So let's aim high, really high. And see if we can help students to aspire to become not just somebody who makes it, but who becomes one of the best in science and engineering, which was a novel concept when thinking about African Americans in science.

Benjamin Thompson

So you wanted to take young students then who weren't actually at university yet, but who showed aptitude or a wants to maybe investigate a career in research, and you then put them through this programme to set them up for graduate school, is that a good approximation?

Freeman Hrabowski

That is, and let's just say with specificity, we were looking for the highest achieving high school seniors who had an interest in science or engineering, and we decided to let them compete for these slots. And then to see what we could do to make them much better better than they ever thought they could be. And one of the challenges is that minority students, students of colour, often are not in those schools that are best known for the best science curricula in our country. And so we were taking students who are from urban environments, rural environments and others and saying, 'You are the best in your school, but we have to teach you to compete against and work with people who've had an even stronger background'. There is the fundamental question you have to face: how do you bring up students and help students who may not have as strong a foundation to get them ready to be able to succeed when in class with students who have superb backgrounds who often have parents who are scientists at the National Institutes of Health, or working at the National Security Agency, that was the challenge that we faced.

Freeman Hrabowski

We talk a lot on the podcast — and researchers and listeners, I'm sure will be aware — of the broader barriers that face students from minority groups. I mean, was there anything specific then that you wanted this programme to focus on, do you think?

Freeman Hrabowski

First of all, we wanted the students to have a vision of themselves, that they were doing this not just for themselves, but they were helping us with an experiment. Because the ineluctable question really was, is it possible for large numbers of Black students and minority students to excel in science when in class with students from all over the world? You know, somebody will say, of course, it is, well, if people haven't seen it, then they don't know, you see, and that's the issue. And what we were able to show was that, yes, it is possible that and Bob Meyerhoff said this, this was 35 years ago, I believe, he said, that if children are given the young people who are given the same opportunities and resources that my children had, they can do anything. Which was just so decent of him. But it was also visionary, because people just assumed, well, they haven't had the background, so they won't be able to make it or they'll barely be able to make it. So it was bold of us to think we can take them to the next level, and prepare them to go on to the ivys and other places, and earn PhDs and become faculty members, even professors in the best of institutions in the country.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean, you talk to obviously a lot of their about the students who aren't in the core of your endeavor, but the educators as well. I mean, you tell the story about some of the lecturers saying, 'Well, you know, why do we need the students to come through this programme? We try to treat everyone equally, why does it even exist?'

Freeman Hrabowski

Sure, and in the early years, some people who were very liberal, who wanted to be fair to everyone just said, 'Well, we shouldn't do anything special for these students, everybody has the same chance, they come here, and we just let them all have the same opportunity. And either they make it or they don't.' But we were not taking into account the fact that some had a much stronger background, foundation, from pre-college experiences, and that these students needed the opportunity to build up their backgrounds. And they need it the opportunity to understand the larger context that in our society, we send messages to young people of colour in many ways and to low-income people, that they are not just not as well prepared, but perhaps not as capable of excelling. We send those messages in many ways. And the point of the programme was not simply to help them in science, it was to give them a strong grounding in the humanities and in the social sciences, and the history of our country, and our society and the development of science, so that they could think broadly about their future and about the fact that they were doing this, again, not just for themselves, but to show what was possible. So they could show different communities of underserved populations, that people of colour were represented in the sciences. And that message was never more important than doing COVID. When we saw how little confidence, people from uneducated homes, that people of colour had in physicians and scientists and the greatest news for us was to see one of our graduates a Meyerhoff scholar, young woman, Dr Kizzmekia Corbett, now at Harvard, who come out of rural North Carolina and come to UMBC and have degrees in biology and the social sciences went on and got a PhD from University of North Carolina to become a postdoc at NIH, and to work with Barney Graham, and for them together to co-lead the team that created the Moderna vaccine, she became the first Black woman in the world to create a vaccine. What a wonderful story for all little girls. I mean, for people in general to see. This is what's possible, when you give people the support they need.

Freeman Hrabowski

It seems like you take the best or potentially the best and the brightest, with a potential I suppose. And they all have to attend a summer boot camp. I've read this described as very, very tough, well I've used the word boot camp. That's what somebody has described as right.

Freeman Hrabowski

Yes, if you look at that 60 Minutes piece on the Meyerhoff program. It's called the Summer Bridge Program, but it is a boot camp. And they are taught to be even more disciplined to rely on each other. We talk a lot about collaboration, problem solving together, they will have problems, math problems, that they've never seen before that are not solved quickly, so that they understand that the most interesting problems are not the ones that you can solve in an hour. And the part that led to people writing very, very unhappy letters to me was when the students said that we take their phones from them — that was the most controversial thought, that we take their phones from them during the week. And it was quite the joke to many people, because I wasn't even aware that we've gotten to that point of taking phones away. And when I checked into it, the reason we take their phones away is that at the end of one Summer Bridge Program, the staff asked the students, 'what else might we have done to help you as a group to coalesce, to get to know each other better?' and those students who were finishing that summer bootcamp said, 'you should have taken our phones away. Because that means we don't talk simply to our friends from high school, or calling our mothers, we rely on each other much more.' And they tried it and it worked quite well.

Benjamin Thompson

So singularity of focus is very important. That's tough, though. I mean, a lot of people, that's not how they work kind of thing.

Freeman Hrabowski

But remember, whatever is required is discussed before they decide they want to be in the programme, you make that decision if you want to be in the programme, but there is a heavy emphasis on building community. Among those students, we cannot have a cutthroat environment where one student is trying just to do better than another student. No, the important thing is the idea of students working together to understand concepts and to help each other along the way.

Benjamin Thompson

I've seen the programme described in one article as "unapologetically elitist". Now, some people might criticize that approach as being for the few, rather than the broader masses. I mean, what would you say to that, I mean, I guess a lot of diversity programs, strive to increase opportunities for as many folk as possible to do an undergraduate degree, right. But you've not taken that approach.

Freeman Hrabowski

The problem with what we do in our country, so often when thinking about diversity, is that we just open the floodgates, and we say, y'all come, just come in, and some making in some don't. Well, in science, it's very interesting. If a student doesn't have a special background, academic background, by the time that student is coming to college, it's almost impossible for that student to succeed in engineering or science. You do a better job in some ways in your country, in that you have certain tests that they have to pass your A levels and things like that to go into certain disciplines. And for a while in the 60s and 70s, we went too far, and just say, well, anybody can try it. Well, it's not fair to have people trying these disciplines if they don't have some reasonable chance of making it. Now, when I say this, at first, people can get upset and begin arguing without understanding the context. The point is, we want to do two things. One, for this programme, we were trying to show it's possible that students can excel. Our country had not shown as a nation, that even the best prepared students could succeed in science and engineering, we had an exception here, an exception there. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the only scientist, Black scientists that ever heard it was George Washington Carver, the peanut guy at Tuskegee. And so most people grew up in America, not knowing the names of Black scientists. And the numbers are so small, the percentages are so small, we needed to prove that we could excel in those areas, number one. And number two, and then to inspire the next group. So what you may not have heard is that while that Meyerhoff programme takes the very best, we also take the students who are the next level, and we have them working together often. So that that next level student, that B student, can get better, and many of them go on to become doctors or scientists. But we need a group of people who can be admired by everybody as the very best, we have no problem talking about being elitist in sports. But for a long time, we have not done that when thinking about the best prepared minority students, you know, the most prestigious universities will recruit those who are the best prepared and their reason they're the best prepared, they've had the resources. So the good news is that in the Meyerhoff programme, you have some who are middle-class kids, but you have some who are low-income kids who somehow been able to make it to that level. The other point that should be emphasized is that we also have special programs at that university at UMBC, and other places, focused on pre-K through 12. Designed to improve substantially the math and reading skills of young children, preschool through high-school level and preparing teachers who will be math and science teachers. That's Betsy and George Sherman, those other philanthropists who started that programme and Betsy was a teacher, the only white teacher and a minority school and she wanted to show the teachers of any race could help children of any race and George was an engineer and that's been going on for years now the Sherman Scholars Program and so I just heard a statistic that we have 175 college students working with 650 children in Baltimore City and tutoring in math and science, to get them ready to be prepared to come to UMBC, perhaps on his mouth scholars, perhaps others as students in general. So it's not that the only effort is with the Meyerhoff. It is one effort to show the country that we can produce excellent scientists. With those at that level.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean you've used the word 'prepare', Freeman many, many times there, which seems like a big thrust of the programme. And I wonder, obviously, your students go through this intensive programme, right, attended by like-minded individuals who also want to be part of this, right and they will work together in an environment that is designed by yourselves to push them but also support them. Do you know what happens, maybe when they do go on to start a PhD in a different place where some of those barriers come back up again, or already exist?

Freeman Hrabowski

Sure. Two things, I chaired the National Academy of Sciences report on underrepresentation in science. And what we found was that the level of education that is the most problematic, in some ways, even more than K through 12, was the undergraduate experience, because the majority of Americans who began with an interest in natural sciences and engineering don't succeed. And we call that first year or two of science and engineering 'weed-out courses'. And we've been working, the National Science Foundation and others, have been working to improve performance at that level. But when I talked to American audiences, and I asked 'How many of you started with an interest in engineering or in pre-med?' people sheepishly raise their hands, and they changed their majors, they become great lawyers or they go into some other discipline that happens all the time. And so we believed 30 years ago, that if we could prepare them, really well, at undergrad level, they would be prepared for graduate school. And we have been proven right through all the research, we've done through the articles that have been published that our students go on and do superbly, in PhD programs, MD PhD programs from Harvard, to Stanford, to Hopkins to Duke, some of whom are now on faculties at those institutions. If you look as an example, at Duke, we've got four Black males on the faculty there, one of whom is a neuroscientist, Dr Kafui Dzirasa. And literally is getting all kinds of awards for his work involving schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and he's in psychiatry and neuroscience. But we have many more like that around the country.

Freeman Hrabowski

So do you think there's an element of resilience in what you're teaching for when people will leave your university to go to other places, too?

Freeman Hrabowski

That's exactly right.

Benjamin Thompson

And so many efforts to tackle issues in DEI you know, diversity are often plagued by accusations of wokeness run amok?

Freeman Hrabowski

Yeah.

Benjamin Thompson

We've had that response at Nature as well, when we write about these things. I mean, how do you respond to accusations like that?

Freeman Hrabowski

You know, I'm speaking to audiences, faculty groups, and others around the country. And I'm saying, first of all, let's change our language. And from my perspective, there's no reason to ever use the word 'woke', because it means different things to different people, and it immediately divides people. There's no need to ever use the word Critical race theory if you're not in the law school somewhere. All right. And more and more, I'm using the words 'inclusion', that we need to include everybody, including people of colour and African Americans, the Meyerhoff programme is wonderful because it has African Americans and Latinos, but it also has whites and Asians in that programme, and a few Native Americans. And the criteria we now use will be of course, excellence in performance in high school science, and an interest in serving underserved, underrepresented populations. So while the program is still 60%, Black and Latino, we have a number of people who would be considered over-represented in science and engineering who will one day be professors and scientists who have a particular interest in and an understanding of the challenges that underserved groups face. I should say, that programme has led to the replication of programmes at other institutions. And Howard Hughes, HHMI, has been the most amazing source of philanthropy. They replicated the Meyerhoff programme at both Penn State — a much larger institution — and at Chapel Hill. And we've been able to show that the components of the programme can be moved somewhere else, and the programme can be replicated. And now even Chan Zuckerberg is replicating the programme for students of colour at Berkeley in San Diego, even an HBCU, Howard University, has replicated the programme, and then others are doing it right now. That's one piece of it. And then the other piece, if I might mention, is on the new programme for building broader participation at the faculty level. And that's the Howard Hughes programme that has honored me with my name. So the Hrabowski Scholars with a $1.5 billion investment I must tell you then, Ben there's an odd feeling one gets when somebody names a programme after him because usually you think about somebody who's dead. It is an honor but most important, those amazing new faculty members almost half of people from unserved populations, the others are people from the broader population. But they all have an interest in broadening participation of having people in their labs who come from first generation college, LGBT, Black, Latino, whatever the group, and Howard Hughes's point is, we can create this programme that will help everyone and help our society by having people who look like all of us a major part of science.

Benjamin Thompson

So the fact that your programme has been replicated or appropriated for different environments, right, it's been running now where you are for what 30 years?

Freeman Hrabowski

Since 1988, first students came in '89. So precisely 35 years. And by the way, I left that campus two years ago, the President there is a polymer chemist, who was the Dean at Duke, Dr Valerie Sheares Ashby and she is now very supportive of that programme.And the programme is doing quite well.

Benjamin Thompson

And let's talk about how it's done then. What are some of the numbers?

Freeman Hrabowski

This year, that number is approaching 500, who've actually completed PhDs, MD PhDs, and MDs with hundreds and hundreds in graduate programs right now. And most important, the most recent studies have shown that we are producing more African Americans who earned bachelor's degrees and go on and complete PhDs in natural sciences and engineering, and MD PhDs, than any university in America. And so we have become the model for institutions who wants to think about how can we best support students to see this kind of success?

Benjamin Thompson

Do you think that the success of this program is something specific to UMBC? Is there something intangible about the environment? Or is it the program itself?

Freeman Hrabowski

It is the programme itself, we have studied the programme. And so we know those elements that make the difference. And it's because of that, and with the the head of the program, Keith Harmon, Mike Summers, who is the one who's really helped him to, to replicate the program, Dr Katherine Cohen, and others, who literally have worked with Howard Hughes, to work with other universities, in creating the programmes that succeeded. When I've gone to Chapel Hill, when I've gone to Penn State you sense the Meyerhoff programme. I was speaking at Duke and there were the students in the audience — it was a programme on science and society. And I was talking, and there was this big group of students, 30/40 students, and they were of colour and white, and they were talking to each other, but very respectfully, to me, it was not that they were loud. But they were truly engaged in what I was saying. Afterwards, as soon as people got to ask questions, this group of young students began asking questions, and they said, 'We're not from here. We're from Chapel Hill. And we are members of the Chancellor Scholars group'. They were the Meyerhoff replication programme. I was stunned. They were engaged, they were very confident, they were solving problems. They were asking questions, they were communicating with each other. And they have a sense of self. These are all the qualities of the Meyerhoff programme. And it's the same sense of self, that the civil rights movement that Dr King gave me as a child of 12, that I was supposed to believe in myself, not just for me, but because I can help to transform things that I could believe, even as a child that what I was doing, marching, and going to jail in the spirit of Thoreau of civil disobedience, that I could get people to think about how we do things.

Benjamin Thompson

I wonder if we can broaden things out. Obviously, you are putting a lot of folks through the programme and going on to higher degrees, but there's still huge disparities and access to education across the world, right. But obviously, you're in the US. What do you think needs to be done more broadly,

Freeman Hrabowski

What encourages me is that the National Agencies are working to broaden participation, the National Science Foundation, the NASA, the NSA, all of these are really and I work with all of these to do that. That's one piece of it. All right, I was really honored to get the Public Service Medal from the National Academy of Sciences and to be inducted into that when added to the National Academy of Engineering, particularly because they want to make the point we want to broaden participation, to have our most prestigious national academies saying 'this is important to us'. But the broader issue that I worked on with President Obama involving the educational excellence of African Americans and other people of colour, those are the other issues we face. And what I would say to you, as I work with different groups, from superintendents and principals and others is that at the heart of the matter, will be first of all, that we have to place more emphasis on helping teachers to help our children to read and think well, because once a child can read, you can never take it from her, you see, and we need to do so much more with that, and then to connect it to math and to technology in those areas, and to stop thinking that math and science are totally different from history and English and literature you see, and to work to have children become excited about learning. This is what we need. And since COVID, and what we see with the bottom half of American children is this need to have much more emphasis in our country, on preparing children to be excited about learning, but also to make sure children are in school — attendance is an issue at the lower levels — and to have as a priority in our society, everyone talking about these issues. This is about this divide that I've talked about now for 50 years, the academic divide, the economic divide that people who are well educated, honestly don't realize how poorly prepared poor children of any race are. And that's not just in our country, that is around the world, as I talk with universities and with educators around the world, that we don't realize that our children need more support in developing a sense of self, number two, and most important to have our children believing that we know they can excel. If I had one wish, it would be that so much of the attention in our country right now that's going for the politics involving personalities would be focused on the issues, the issues of poverty, the issue of education, you see, and that's where we have to go. And I can say this as a child who was told as a second-class citizen, I know why I believe in America. It is because we can be much better. I've seen us.

Benjamin Thompson

I think my only other question is when do you sleep Freeman? But maybe that's another question for another day. Let's leave it there. Freeman Hrabowski. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Freeman Hrabowski

Thank you, Ben. I'm honored. Thank you.

Benjamin Thompson

Freeman Hrabowski there. To read his Changemakers Q&A look for a link in the show notes. I've been Benjamin Thompson, see you next time.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai