Inspiring Students of All Ages

In January 2011, a group of African-American fourth-graders slipped silently into Brookings 300 and sat down at the giant conference table, staring ahead. Their teacher, a strict disciplinarian, hadn’t hushed them; in part, they were intimidated by this austere room, which was once the university’s chapel. They were also a little uneasy to be visiting the elegant, turreted Washington University, alien land to them though it stands only three miles from their inner-city elementary school.

Back in their own community, life was tougher. More than 90 percent of the children in their school qualify for the free-lunch program. Few parents have gone to college; some students were in foster care and others were homeless. At their school, budget cuts had eliminated most field trips, so this one, organized by volunteers, was a rare, exciting treat.

And they were starting to like this new place. Minutes earlier, they had seen a glittering rock exhibit in the Earth & Planetary Sciences Building. Then a space scientist had taken them upstairs to a magical room, where a computer simulation had whisked them inside the solar system, with Saturn and Jupiter whirling past. Now a man named James McLeod was standing in front of them; he was going to tell them about this school and how they might actually come here someday.

Dean McLeod was different from their teachers; he did not lecture or scold. After a gracious welcome, he asked the children to introduce themselves and tell him what they would do when they grew up. “I am Alicia Smith,” said the first one timidly, “and I want to be a teacher.” Others followed, growing bolder: budding basketball players, scientists, physicians, chefs and ballerinas. Dean McLeod listened attentively, thanking each one.

Then he began to speak. In his patient, measured way, he told them about Washington University: its courses and dormitories, sports and social life. It was an excellent school, he said — but they could come here; it was not just for other people. How to get ready for that? You don’t wait until high school, he said.

“If you want to be a scientist, you go to school and do your best in science today. Then you do your best in science tomorrow, and you keep doing that every single day. By the time you are ready for college, you won’t have to do anything special,” he said, surveying his rapt audience. “You will be all ready.”

He opened the floor for questions, and the braver children raised their hands. What was it like to live in a dorm? (You’ll probably share a room.) Do you have to make your own bed? (No.) Did Dean McLeod teach students? (He used to teach German.) Was he German? (No, from Alabama.) Where do students eat? (Wonderful dining halls.) And what, asked one little girl, looking shrewdly at him, did all of this cost?

“Well, it costs around $50,000 a year,” said Dean McLeod. The little girl flung herself on the table in despair. “But you don’t have to worry about that,” he continued, firmly. “If you are a good student, and we accept you, we will find the money so that you can come here.”

Chatting excitedly, the children filed out, back to their bus and their neighborhood. A new image of college was etched in their minds because of Dean McLeod, who had taken time to talk to them and urge them to get ahead. Their teacher shook his hand gratefully. “Thank you so much,” she said, tears in her eyes. “You have opened up a new world to them. This is an experience they will never forget.”

And Dean McLeod moved on to the next appointment in his crowded, important, ordinary day.

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