Boston, Columns, Education, Youth
Jun 16, 1997
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: Two Who Chose to be something


June 15, 1997

So here she came the other day, walking through the haze of a humid afternoon, walking proudly up Adams Street in Dorchester past a line of red brick rowhouses where children sat on stoops seeking relief from the heat, walking right into a future filled now with potential due to her own diligence.

Her name is Phong Tran and she is 17 and she has only been in the United States since 1991 — time enough, though, to finish at the top of her Cathedral High class and win a four-year scholarship to UMass-Amherst, where she will be one more Vietnamese student representing the constant American spirit of renewal “It is like a dream,” Phong Tran pointed out. “I am so grateful. I am so happy.”

“With no scholarship, where would you go?” she was asked.

“To work,” Phong Tran replied.

“What do you want to be?”

“A doctor,” she said right away. “So I can help others. So I can repay people for my good fortune.”

The young woman earned her fortune all by herself. And she is only one of 83 premier students from across the state who have been granted a gift worth $8,000 a year simply because they were smart enough to be smart.

The University Scholars program is a new benefit provided by the state’s university system. This year, four-year scholarships were offered to those seniors who finished first or second in their classes at each of Massachusetts’ 400 public and private high schools. Tomorrow, many of the 83 who accepted the scholarships will be honored at a State House reception.

For decades, the UMass system has been smeared by elitists and relegated to second-class status in a commonwealth that boasts a long line of more famous and more expensive private institutions. But, whether at Harvard or UMass-Lowell, nobody is ever given an education, only the opportunity to get one — grab one, really — and that chance is not lost on those students and families going now for free.

“My daughter is very ambitious,” the Rev. Earl McDowell was saying Friday. “We teach all our children to be ambitious, to have goals and go after them. She did, too.”

Rev. McDowell was sitting in the second-floor parlor of his Roxbury apartment along with his wife, Patricia. The two parents were crazy with pride over their daughter Valerie, who topped the ticket at Madison Park High and will be going to UMass-Boston in September. Both young women — Phong Tran from Vietnam and Valerie McDowell from Guild Street — take a splendiferous spirit off to their amazing new world.

“She just graduated last night,” Patricia McDowell explained. “She was the valedictorian. The ceremony was at Matthews Arena, and she walked in with all the dignitaries.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” her husband added.

“She’s the first in our family to ever go to a four-year college,” the mother said.

“She worked hard for it,” Rev. McDowell said. “She had three part-time jobs all year, too. This scholarship is a true blessing because, as you can see, I took a vow of poverty.”

“He took it seriously, too,” his wife laughed.

“Valerie has always been a straight-A student,” the proud father continued. “At the Nathan Hale. At the Wheatley and all through Madison Park. We are firm believers in public education, but it’s a matter of determination and parental involvement whether your children do well.

“It’s not up to society, to the city, or to the police to provide children with goals and ambitions. It’s up to us as her mother and father,” Rev. McDowell stated. “If a black youth is nothing, it means they chose to be nothing.”

“Basically, we have tried to be our daughter’s best friends as well as her parents,” Patricia McDowell added. “It’s good that way. We were able to guide her away from trouble, and if our children meet someone not up their standards, we let them know. And they just say `goodbye.’ “

Now, the valedictorian from the night before was ready to go to work on the morning after her triumph. Valerie McDowell, symbol of any future we might have, is a marvelous young woman who only dreamed of a university education prior to the gift of a four-year scholarship.

But sometimes dreams come true. And sometimes hard work, discipline, and dedication are rewarded, and when that happens, the grateful — like Valerie McDowell and Phong Tran — head to college, two magnificent investments in a state of mind.