UPPER MARLBORO – Tiana Wynn’s life is the stuff tear-jerker movies-of-the-week are made of. Raised in inner-city Baltimore, she was given up for adoption at age 8 by her drug-addicted mother, who later committed suicide.
“By any estimation, the cards were stacked against me,” said Wynn. “I was to be a statistic: a teenage mom, drug addict, alcoholic or high school dropout and live a life of poverty.”
But, said Wynn, a University of Maryland program made her a new statistic — one of the first of its successes.
The University of Maryland Incentive Awards Program — which offers full scholarships and university support services for academically eligible students facing extreme personal and financial hardships — will graduate its first crop of students, including Wynn, this spring.
The program will also expand its reach from Baltimore City to Prince George’s County, university and county officials announced Tuesday.
“I was to perpetuate the life that had been prepared for me,” said Wynn at a reception in at the Prince George’s County Administration Building announcing the program’s expansion. “But being in the Incentive Awards Program gave me the opportunity to play my hand differently.”
Through the program, Wynn will earn degrees in accounting and finance and has already accepted at job as an external auditor at Ernst & Young in Baltimore.
The program was hatched in 2000 by University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, who had success with a similar program when he was vice chancellor of University of California, Berkeley.
“This is my favorite program . . . I think these kids are the cream of the crop,” said Mote. “They may not show up in test scores, but they’ve got the stuff.”
Since its inception, the program has helped 45 students, nine per year, nominated from nine participating Baltimore City Public Schools. A committee then selects the awardees. The expansion into Prince George’s County will admit one student each from Central, Fairmont Heights, Northwestern, Potomac and Suitland High Schools.
The program was piloted in Baltimore, said Mote, because the state’s “premiere” city sent very few students to the University of Maryland. Out of 4,000 freshmen, typically only 40 were from Baltimore public schools. Through the incentive awards program and other outreach efforts, this year’s freshman class stood at 59.
In addition to a four-year scholarship, participants are matched up with mentors; given financial, academic and career advising; and required to return to their neighborhoods and high schools to spread the word about higher education.
“It is more than just the money we give to them,” said Jacqueline W. Lee, the program director. “It’s communication. We are trying to help in a comprehensive way so we don’t simply give them money and expect to navigate the college system on their own.”
The program has one of the highest retention rates – having lost just three of the 45 participating students – of any group, including honors students, at the University of Maryland, said Mote.
“(The students) are coming from very difficult circumstances, the odds are definitely against them,” said Lee. “The (high school) curriculum sometimes doesn’t prepare the student adequately . . . so for them to perform at the 3.0 level is quite remarkable.”
Mote said he plans to expand the program statewide in the future, but funding — the program is completely financed through private donations — is a challenge. It costs $25,000 per student per year, which translates to $500,000 over the next five years for the Prince George’s expansion alone.
But it’s worth it when comparing the cost to student success stories, said Mote.
John Sanders — homeless for a year after his mother was evicted from the home they were living in — is another success. Living on the streets was tough, said Sanders, but growing up in Baltimore was a challenge on its own.
“The poverty, the drugs, the violence, the lifestyle that’s presented to you. That’s an obstacle in itself,” said Sanders.
Sanders is now a sophomore studying communications. He will travel to Vietnam, China and Australia over the next year with university-sponsored study abroad programs and plans to get a master’s in architecture.
Dean Jackson, a junior, is studying zoology and plans to get his master’s and doctorate, hopefully at Harvard. His mentor went to Harvard and he’s hoping for a recommendation letter.
“I look at him,” said Jackson. “He’s an African-American male, and I think if he can go I can go.”
Wynn, too, now has high hopes: to be a senior manager with Ernst & Young and have a family.
“My biggest goal is to have a family – to do for my family some of the things I lacked . . . and to be better.”