Freeman Hrabowski encourages students to “hold fast to dreams” and take time for laughter

Freeman Hrabowski (center) posed for photos with a crowd of more than 50 before and after an informal event at MIT.

In a visit to MIT, the educator and author led a lively and inspiring Q&A with students.

Lillian Eden | Department of Biology

August 17, 2023

A group of more than 50 individuals recently had the pleasure of sitting down for an informal chat at MIT with distinguished educator, author, and mathematician Freeman Hrabowski. The group was predominantly composed of MIT Summer Research Program in Biology (MSRP-Bio) students and alumni and current students from the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Hrabowski is widely credited for transforming UMBC into a world-renowned, innovative institution while serving as its president from 1992 to 2022. The educator also ushered in a generation of Black students to earn PhDs in science and engineering, co-founding the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC. Founded in 1988, the program has become a national model for increasing diversity in STEM. Hrabowski was also a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans during the Obama administration. 

Hrabowski began by quoting poet William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserable every day for lack of what is found there,” and leading a call-and-response recitation of the poem “Dreams,” by Langston Hughes, as well as a mantra encouraging students to use their words, actions, and habits to shape their character and their destiny. Afterward, the students asked Hrabowski about his life and experiences. 

“The audience of high-achieving students asked terrific, insightful questions reflecting their contemplation of their own paths,” says Department of Biology head Amy Keating. “When students spoke up, Hrabowski engaged with them, and their ideas and perspectives were welcomed and respected. By the end of his time with them, almost everyone had their hand up and wanted to contribute to the lively discussion.”

Tobias Coombs, a Meyerhoff Scholars program alumnus and current graduate student in the Spranger Lab, says the event was an example of “classic Freeman Hrabowski:” Hrabowski injected the crowd with excitement and energy. Coombs also remarked that Hrabowski, named by Time as one of the world’s most influential people in 2012, acknowledged to the group that he’s shy, something Hrabowski is still pushing himself to overcome.

“He makes a point of being this down-to-earth person that you feel you can talk to about real issues and have real conversations with,” Coombs says. “He genuinely wants to motivate you to think science and math are cool.”

Before taking questions from the students in attendance, Hrabowski posed one to them: What do you think it takes to be successful in research in STEM? Among the responses were passion, curiosity, and a supportive community. After each response, Hrabowski encouraged a round of applause for each student brave enough to stand and give an answer because “everybody needs support.”

“The way that you think about yourselves, the language that you use, the way that you interact with each other, and the values that you hold, will be so important. You become like the things that you love,” Hrabowski says.

For his lifetime of accomplishments increasing diversity in STEM, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced a new program named after Hrabowski. The HHMI Freeman Hrabowski Scholars were selected for their potential to become leaders in their research fields and to foster diverse and inclusive lab environments. The inaugural class of 31 scholars includes MIT biology faculty members Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, and Hernandez Moura Silva, an assistant professor and Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard core member, as well as MIT biology and Cheeseman lab alumna Kara McKinley PhD ’16.

Vos and Moura Silva were among the faculty attending the event, and both say Hrabowski was an inspiring guest to have on campus.

“Dr. Hrabowski’s smile, energy, and words are a true force of nature,” Hernandez says. “His words of wisdom showed us that we can all make the impossible possible by bringing a positive attitude to build a strong, supportive, and diverse community. It was such an honor to have him here.”

Biology department undergraduate officer Adam Martin says he noticed the pride in Hrabowski’s eyes when Hrabowski discussed what his trainees and faculty in his programs have accomplished. Biology department graduate officer Mary Gehring said his visit made her remember why she wanted to be a professor: “to help others follow their passions to their full potential.” 

Hrabowski reflected on many topics, including the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. He pointed out that this was not the first time the Supreme Court had ruled on a racially conscious initiative, namely the 1995 decision that a UMBC scholarship program was unconstitutional. To continue the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which was affected by the Supreme Court decision at the time, Hrabowski worked with Maryland’s attorney general, found language and methods to encourage broad participation of diverse individuals, and focused on what the program was trying to achieve.

“My message to everyone was ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ If the institution wants to continue to build diversity and broader participation, we can do it,” he says. “What we’re working to achieve in the Meyerhoff program and in the Freeman Hrabowski Scholars program is to have everybody included.”

Hrabowski also offered advice on more everyday challenges: good students, himself included, can focus too much, forgetting to make time for other important aspects of their lives. He has learned to make time for tai chi, acupuncture, and getting his steps in; he encouraged the students similarly to take time for themselves outside work or school.

“When you can have fun and laugh, you’re a much better person. You can be a better thinker if you take care of yourself overall,” he says. “It’s the healthy person who can be most effective.”

As for being intimidated or nervous to talk to a superior, Hrabowski had the room roaring with laughter at his advice: “Just remember they go to the bathroom, too.”  

Keating noted that Hrabowski engaged with the audience with energy, compassion, and humor. 

She also observed, “No one can hide in Dr. Hrabowski’s classroom.”

“He put students front and center in his presentation, and his emphasis on the joys and importance of learning, knowledge, and achievement inspired us all to go back to the lab and classroom and be our best selves,” Keating says. “He acknowledged that paths in STEM demand much of us, and he encouraged students to have the discipline needed to stay the course while also taking care of themselves.”

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