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Scholastic stars stare down a stigma

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published April 17, 2005

PHILADELPHIA - On a freezing Sunday night in the heart of campus, University of Pennsylvania freshman Kamal Nesfield and his roommates huddle around the television for a fall ritual: pro football and super-spicy chicken wings.

Conventional wisdom suggests the hot topics will be girls and parties, but not tonight.

Tonight, it's SAT scores.

Nesfield, a 2004 graduate of Blake High School in Tampa, earned a 1,300 out of a possible 1,600. His roommates also scored 1,300 or above, putting them in the most exclusive of clubs and on the recruitment radars of Penn, Harvard, Princeton and other elite universities.

"We're all nerds," jokes Nesfield, who finished second in his class at Blake and starred as an offensive lineman on the football field.

Nerds?

Maybe - if that's what you call scholastic superstars on clear paths to influential jobs and six-figure salaries.

That's the flip side to the struggle many black males face in school: For the relative handful who post stellar grades and test scores, the world rolls out the red carpet. Top colleges, always looking to diversify enrollment, fight over them first. The best law firms and biggest corporations follow.

So many Ivy League schools pestered Nesfield that by the time Yale sent a questionnaire - Yale, where the past three U.S. presidents went to school - he deep-sixed it.

"I was just like, "Leave me alone,' " he says.

Like blue-chip athletes, the limited pool of black academic all-stars ups demand.

Mike Powell is in charge of wooing National Achievement scholars - the top-scoring black high school students in the United States. - to the University of Florida. He says he might talk to prospective students 20 times in an effort to convince them that UF can match the Ivies or historically black schools such as Florida A&M.

"Harvard gets to say, "Hey, we're Harvard,' " Powell says. "That's hard to touch."

Of the 151,604 students in the country who scored 1,300 or better on the SAT last year, less than 1 percent - 1,052 - were black males. Of the seven National Achievement scholars from the Tampa Bay area last year, only two were males: Nesfield and Jesuit High School graduate Andrew Dowe, now at Yale.

"My mom . . . always pushed us to do our best," says Dowe, who notched a 1,500 on the SAT and is now pleasantly torn between a future in architecture or law.

Both he and Nesfield have heard it before - the idea that they're turning their backs on black culture by pursuing academics.

"It's funny to me," Nesfield says. "Are you saying being black is being dumb?"

Nesfield says he could have gone to any school in the country, with most of his tuition and expenses paid. To the schools, the young man with shoulder-length dreadlocks on a 313-pound frame was the complete package, a big athlete with a big brain.

In the end, he chose Penn.

Penn is a powerhouse in Ivy League football and Nesfield dreams of playing in the NFL.

But he also admits that's a long shot, which is why he has a Plan B: becoming a business lawyer. To that end, he couldn't resist Penn's Wharton School, one of the top business schools in the nation.

With a Wharton stamp, "you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars a year difference in salary," he says.

Nesfield is likely to encounter tough classes at Penn. But he's not likely to fail.

The Ivy Leagues don't enroll as many black students as state universities in Florida. (The undergraduate rate at Penn is 6 percent, compared to 13 percent at the University of South Florida and 7 percent at UF.) But they do a far better job of graduating them.

The graduation rates for black students at Harvard and Yale hover in the mid 90-percent range, while Penn is taking heat for a rate in the low 80s. UF's rate, in the high 60s, is the best in Florida.

Nesfield is likely to get all the help he wants.

Like many Florida schools, Penn has a retention program for at-risk students, 60 percent of whom are white. But it's not geared toward completion of an undergraduate degree.

"We don't worry about graduation rates anymore," says Terri White, who directs Penn's academic support programs. "We try to figure out how to get them into a medical school, dental school, law school, Ph.D program . . . "

Nesfield considers himself both African-American and Caribbean-American. His father is from Grenada; his mother, from Antigua. Neither went to college.

He is clearly proud of his roots.

In high school, he transferred from majority white Sickles High to heavily minority Blake because he wanted "more culture." At Penn, he chooses to live in a black dorm.

The week before fall finals, Nesfield joined other black students in a demonstration to protest racial profiling by Penn police.

For the occasion, he wore a Black Panther Party T-shirt.

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