By Vanessa Russell
12-year old William Lewis Berry III says he wants to be a neurologist one day and find a cure for brain cancer. And after only a few moments of serious conversation with this teenager, it's easy to believe he will.
"Kids used to call me a nerd; but it's okay because nerds study hard, get good grades and do what they're supposed to do, and that's cool!"
His confident, intellectual dialogue and adamant focus on his studies is refreshing considering the uncertainty of some of today's youth.
A rising 8th grader at Walker-Grant Middle School, Berry's not alone in his passion and thirst for knowledge. In fact, he's a part of an even larger legacy – he's a James Farmer Scholar! Started in 1986, the James Farmer Scholars program at the University of Mary Washington was originally set up for African-American students who had the potential to go to college. Today, the program is more multicultural and represents students from all parts of Spotsylvania county, the City of Fredericksburg, Caroline and Westmoreland counties. "85% of our scholars' parents didn't go to college, so most will be first generation college students," says Dr. Leah Cox, director of the program.
Named after the late civil rights activist and distinguished history professor at Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington), Dr. James Farmer was the absolute essence of academic brillance. The author of numerous published articles, and the holder of many honors and degrees, Farmer established the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). He served as Asst. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare under President Nixon, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.
"When I first started working with the program, I told students they would be quizzed about Dr. Farmer. He started college when he was only 14 years old, and during the students' first semester in the program, Farmer's life story is required reading," states Cox.
Each year, the search for scholars begins during students' 6th grade year. Selection is based on their grades, SOL test scores and an essay they must write on the spot. If selected, students begin the program as 7th graders. They must attend full day sessions – one Saturday per month for the entire school year -- and a 1-week campus residential program in the summer. To stay in the program, students must maintain a B average with no school disciplinary problems. Once accepted, students are in until they graduate from 12th grade.
"I want them to enjoy learning...like learning about black poetry or the history of rap and jazz and how it connects to their culture...," says Cox.
"Students study genealogy, politics, math, science and poetry. They also conduct their own public policy debates. They learn to research, develop topics and defend arguments. They also learn how to listen so they can make reasonable rebuttals."
Berry says he was most excited by the requirement to research college and develop career aspirations.
"When I grow up, I want to be a neurologist, like Dr. Benjamin Carson, my hero. I want to do pre-med at Yale University; and medical school at the University of Michigan," says Berry. (Dr. Ben Carson is the first African-American director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins; and he too attended both Yale & Univ. of Michigan)
This school year 48 new students will join the prestigious league of James Farmer Scholars. The program has one goal in mind ... "to help them succeed academically and get into college. 95% of our scholars go on to college," says Cox.
And Berry says while some students boast about being ready to just get out of high school, this program stresses that "being done with high school, isn't it – college is what's next for us."
His parents say they're proud of their eldest son who, as a teenager, already has a strong work ethnic. "We don't have to push him, because he knows hard work breeds success," says his mother, Stacey Berry.
The new school year is beginning and new students are preparing to walk in Berry's shoes, inspired by James Farmer's life. As Berry starts his new year, he always remembers his three younger brothers are watching him.
"I try being my best at all times, because I see them wanting to do what I do." And if what Berry is doing so far is a taste of what's to come, his brothers are certainly right to watch!
For more information about the James Farmers Scholars program:
Log onto www.umw.edu or call 540-654-2119.
There are no costs to scholars or parents, but you must be a resident of one of the participating counties.
Vanessa Russell is the Mid-Atlantic Media Coordinator for Mocha Moms, Inc. She lives in the city of Fredericksburg, with her husband & two children.