By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
William Chin, a senior at Charles H. Flowers High School in Prince George's County, leads an exalted life. He'll graduate first in his class Thursday. He scored a 2000 on the SAT. He's an Eagle Scout and a Maryland Distinguished Scholar. He even has a Facebook fan club. It's called "William Chin and the Lovely Ladies He Knows."
It has 197 members.
Like most students at Flowers, Chin is black. But as far as colleges are concerned, he is pure gold.
An aspiring engineer, Chin has been admitted to Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland at College Park, Howard, North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T. He also was admitted to his first choice: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He'll be going there next fall, he announced recently.
"I guess I have good encouragement," Chin said of his parents. He seemed mildly embarrassed by the thought of colleges tripping over each other to accept him. "They were definitely excited about me applying," he said.
Chin's story is not one typically heard when talk turns to Prince George's schools, where the truancy and dropout rates are high and test scores lag when compared with neighboring jurisdictions. But Prince George's is one of the best places in the United States to find top black students. Although Chin's father is Asian, his mother is African American, and he identifies himself as black. He belongs to the National Association of Black Engineers.
About 8,000 seniors, the vast majority of them African American, graduated from the county's public schools last year. Almost half attended a four-year college. Many students are the product of upper-middle-class, college-educated families; the median household income in Mitchellville, Chin's home town, was $84,687 in 1999, according to Census data. And motivated students can attend challenging high school programs at schools such as Flowers, in Springdale.
This makes the county a rich environment for college recruiters, who for decades have sought out talented minorities such as Chin. College officials say that diversity -- of sex, race, economic background and geography -- promotes the sharing of different life experiences as well as better and broader education for all students. It also helps some schools overcome reputations for excluding women, the poor and the nonwhite.
Women now outnumber men on many college campuses. But the diversity campaign, begun in the civil rights era, has not been entirely successful. At many schools, enrollment of black students -- particularly black men -- has declined in recent years, particularly in response to lawsuits protesting affirmative action. Last fall, the University of California at Los Angeles, where the number of admitted black students dropped from 693 in 1995 to 244 in 2006, described the situation as a crisis.
Chin, 17, is the kind of student who can cut the Gordian knot. He needs no helping hand; as a scholar, Chin has the credentials and competitive drive to get into most top schools.
"He kind of reminds me of Bill Gates," said Heather Roberts, Chin's guidance counselor at Flowers. "You know he's going to do something phenomenal."
Most of Chin's friends in the science and technology program at Flowers have been admitted to top local and national colleges. One young woman picked Wellesley. Another senior chose McDaniel College over Johns Hopkins and Vassar. Chin's classmates are going to the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Chicago and have been admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, American University, Georgetown, George Washington, Rice, Tufts and Vanderbilt.
Like Chin and 96 percent of the students at Flowers, all of these high achievers are black, and they have discovered that they are popular on the college circuit. (The only gripe some have is that their parents make too much money for them to be eligible for need-based financial aid.)
"You can't say enough good things about diversity," said Tracy Schario, a spokeswoman for George Washington. "For minority students who are bright, there's a tremendous amount of competition" among college recruiters.
George Washington has focused its attempts to recruit minority students locally. It offers a full scholarship to top graduates of public schools in the District, the majority of whom are black. Some schools target black students specifically for aid, offering scholarships named after such black luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Banneker. Other schools show a welcoming face: Vanderbilt took students to one of its famed fraternity step shows. The University of Pennsylvania sent a bus to Union Station to pick up minority students for an all-expenses-paid campus visit.
Jennifer Desjarlais, the dean of admissions at Wellesley, said that the school's "secret weapon" for recruiting students is local graduates. Its Washington-based club also reaches out to Prince George's and Northern Virginia, and the college is "increasing efforts by alumnae of color to get involved in our recruiting," Desjarlais said. Recruiters also look at strong schools that previously have not sent students to Wellesley.
"How excited we were to have a candidate from C.H. Flowers," Desjarlais exclaimed.
She was talking about Boafoa Offei-Darko, one of Chin's classmates, who will be attending Wellesley in the fall.
"She was someone who had been involved in the process very early," Desjarlais said. "She had attended a college fair and was attended by one of our college fair volunteers." Later, Offei-Darko visited the Wellesley campus on a day specially for minority students, which included introductions to current students of color in addition to the orientation program offered all students.
Offei-Darko, an aspiring journalist, said she got distinctly different treatment at the University of Chicago, her first choice.
"Chicago didn't seem to care," she said. "It was like, 'Oh, you're here, just do the work.' "
Offei-Darko said she noticed the added attention from Wellesley, though she had mixed feelings about it.
"Part of me feels like, if I can get into college with less credentials, how would I do . . . versus people who got in not based on race?" she said. But of Wellesley, she said: "I really did like it. I was happy they acknowledged the fact that the minority experience is different."
In the end, she chose Wellesley, but her decision did not come down to race or diversity. It came down to money: Wellesley's financial aid package covered half her tuition. That was good enough for Desjarlais.
"She's a remarkable young woman, and we're delighted she's interested in coming here," Desjarlais said. "And we hope she's going to pave the way for other students."