Character becomes destiny

Pushing black students to earn science and engineering degrees has been a priority for Freeman Hrabowski (black guy with Polish ancestor), who’s run University of Maryland Baltimore County for 20 years, reports the Baltimore Sun. I was struck by the account of Hrabowski’s talk to predominantly low-income, black and Hispanic eighth graders at a Maryland middle school.

For their part, the kids appear distracted or sleepy. So Hrabowski attacks. “How many of you are smart?” he begins. A few hands tentatively go up. “All right, tell me your name and tell me what you want to be when you grow up,” he says.

. . . Slowly but surely, his energy transfers to the students. Hands raise more quickly. Thoughts come out more forcefully. “How many of you study at home at night?” he asks. Only two hands go up. “Now there’s the issue,” he says. “I guarantee the people who study are going to be successful. Nothing can replace hard work.”

Only two students study at home? Is it uncool to admit to doing homework? Or are they really that lazy?

He offers $50 for the first person to solve a math problem, but threatens to charge $5 for a wrong answer. (Of 29 students, 20 have a dog and 15 a cat. How many have both?)

“You need to be pumped all the time,” Hrabowski tells the students.

When I go to South Africa or Asia, they say, ‘Bring it on.’ They’re focused. They’re hungry for it. How are you gonna be the best if you can’t match that?”

As a young black kid, he says, he yearned to show a dubious world he was as smart as anybody. To this day, he works 80 to 90 hours and reads three books in a typical week. “That’s what it takes to be the best,” he says.

Nobody gets the right answer, but Hrabowski forgives the $5 debts, reports the Sun. ( I think it’s a range from six to 15. Is that right?)

He gets them on their feet and leads them through one of his favorite refrains: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes destiny.”

Three students, all black boys, walk him to his car. He chastens them one more time about their study habits. “Rich kids work hard,” he says. “Most black kids aren’t working hard enough.”

Philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff “was struck by Hrabowski’s absolute faith that black men could thrive at the highest levels of academia if held to high enough standards from the start of college,” reports the Sun. With Meyerhoff’s money, UMBC  recruits students of all races aiming for doctoral studies in science or engineering.

About Joanne


  1. Pushing into engineering a student of any race with bad test scores, especially in the math section of the SAT or ACT, is a bad idea. Research has found that success in engineering and other majors is correlated to those scores, and that the SAT slightly overpredicts the college grades of black students. See the recent report “The Validity of the SAT for Predicting Cumulative Grade Point Average by College Major”, available online.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      They’re in the 8th grade, know-it all. They don’t have SAT or ACT scores as of yet; at least I don’t think so. What’s the problem with motivating kids in lower grades and giving them good instruction?

      • Science and engineering majors are difficult even for smart kids. If you are talking to an unselected group of kids, it is more realistic to talk about majors in easier subjects, such as business.

  2. Yes, the answer is the range 6 to 15, inclusive.

    • If you want to get picky about the wording, 0-15. There could be 23 with one animal, and 6 with either two dogs or two cats, but no one with both a dog and a cat. Or there could be 28 with no animals and just one crazy dog/cat person.

      I commend Hrabowsk for inspiring the kids to try harder, but if they are going to succeed as engineers, they’d better be able to recognize such possibilities, and to express themselves more precisely.

  3. Working hard is critical, but so is the acquisition of appropriate knowledge and skills. Far too many kids (probably most in the cities and some of our rural areas) are not attending schools with appropriate behavioral standards, let alone high-quality curricula and effective/efficient instructional methods. By the time these kids get to MS, they are seriously behind and unlikely to catch up to their more advantaged peers. There is also a cognitive component; not everyone has the ability to become an engineer, physicist or nurse anymore than everyone has the ability to be a concert pianist, professional BB player or Olympic gymnast.

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear “momof4” !
      I agree with your statement 100%, as well as with the statement by “Bostonian”.

      Re the statement by”J.D. Salinger”.
      OK, they do not have ACT or SAT scores yet.
      But they have their cognitive abilities (may be un-measured by ACT or SAT yet),
      and abilities vary.

      Your truly, Florida resident

      • J.D. Salinger says:

        Getting students to work hard is key. People with high IQ’s and who don’t work hard aren’t going to make it in engineering or science. Hrabowski is motivating kids to work hard so they have choices. Agree with MomOf4 that good courses/curriculum are key. As far as the “ability” to become an engineer, as I say, even with high IQ, if you don’t have the proper instruction, and fail to do hard work, the choice is not even open.

  4. Only two students study at home? Is it uncool to admit to doing homework? Or are they really that lazy?

    What on earth does “lazy” have to do with it? The kids don’t see any value to doing homework. It’s not on their horizon. There’s no evidence that doing homework improves demonstrated achievement. It does improve grades, but that’s because teachers grade homework.

    In my classes, maybe 10% do homework, and there’s no correlation between homework and demonstrated achievement.

  5. lightly seasoned says:

    Maybe that’s a math thing, Cal. I see a very high correlation between homework/task completion and test grades in my classes. The correlation is also pretty high in standardized test scores. Reading and writing well take a lot of practice — and that is a hard work thing.

  6. George Larson says:

    “In my classes, maybe 10% do homework, and there’s no correlation between homework and demonstrated achievement.”

    This was true when I went to school. There was a lot of copying each others homework.

  7. I almost never did homework. I spent my time on projects that interested me (note: not TV, which is a great time-suck). Hard work is necessary for success, but it has to be the right work. Too often, homework is not the right work.

    Two lies in this article:
    – that hard work will be sufficient to ensure success – if you are poor and black in the US, many opportunities may be denied you
    – that rich people work hard – some people have become rich as a result of hard (but mostly smart) work. But most wealth is due to inheritance, position and connections. And most rich people do not work hard, nor have they ever worked hard.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      It probably depends how you define ‘rich.’ The ‘rich’ people most of us have day-to-day contact with are doctors, lawyers, and successful small business people. These groups all work pretty hard and put in 50+ hours a week.

      The class that inherits great wealth doesn’t really exist on most people’s radar, because they don’t live where we can see them. For most kids, ‘rich’ means a McMansion with a pool and a 3 car garage. Maybe a pony. Parents who send you to a nice summer camp and buy your bike new instead of at garage sales.

      That sort of ‘rich’ comes from hard work.

    • > But most wealth is due to inheritance, position and connections.

      Gonna need a source on that one. Maybe things have changed since I was a kid, but back then EVERYONE expected their kids to do better, make more money and climb higher than they did. It was a cultural touchstone and it came true for me and all of my siblings (yes, my father had some connections in the city I grew up in – unfortunately for me, I left that town at 18 and have never lived there since).

      The Treasury department did a 10-year study of incomes:

      They found that, in those ten years, 58% of those in the lowest income quintile had moved up to a higher quintile. The only group that saw an average decline were those in the top 5% (probably because many may have been in that group due to a one-time event).

      Reporting about economic matters always seems to focus on a static snapshot of the population, someone is “rich” or “poor”, but the fact is that people move up and down the income ladder constantly.

  8. GEORGE LARSON says:

    In the 19th Century America there was a saying:

    Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in 3 generations.

    I think college connections help. I thought that was part of the ivy league obsession. Go to school and make friends with the rich, powerful and well connected

    • It’s not just about connections but about learning the habits, behavior, social conventions, dress and assumptions of the upper middle and upper classes. Those who did not grow up in communities where those things were learned in childhood/adolescence, need to learn them in college if they are to enter and be successful in that environment. This is true of any racial and ethnic group; a white kid from rural Appalachia or a blue-collar kids from a Midwestern small town as well as a minority/new immigrant from an inner city.