Black scholars were, and are, determined to succeed

Two teens with already impressive resumes prepare for MIT and Harvard. Who encouraged them most? Their parents.

Published June 8, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Two outstanding members of the Class of 2005 soon will spread their wings after traveling on a parallel track since middle school.

Jason Conage-Pough, who graduated from the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High School, will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study biomedical engineering or biological sciences.

A longtime friend, Safiya Miller, a graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, will attend Harvard University to study economics and law.

The 18-year-olds met years ago when Conage-Pough's cousin became Miller's best friend. At 14, they already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.

"My earliest memory of school was that there was a competitive streak in me," Conage-Pough said. "I wanted to make sure I was the best at everything."

As a student in the magnet programs at Bay Point elementary and middle schools, he was among many students with a desire to excel and encountered little peer pressure to stray from his studies. In fact, he says, any pressure was self-induced.

"I had to learn it wasn't the end of the world if I got a B," he said.

With three grown half siblings already out of the house, he grew up with plenty of attention from his parents, Arlene Conage-Pough and John Pough Sr. of St. Petersburg.

"If you asked them, they would say once I reached middle school they weren't able to help me too much," Conage-Pough said. "But they were always there for support. When I was doing homework late at night, they would be there to see if there was anything I needed."

In retrospect, he says that as an academically successful college bound African-American male, his life has been more or less under a microscope.

"I want to make sure that everything I do is an encouragement to others to follow in the same path," he said. "I also want to show that I'm not a unique talent, that I'm not the only one capable of doing this."

When it comes to the achievement gap between black and white students, he thinks that all children can succeed if they have the proper resources - parental support, teacher encouragement and community nurturing.

Like Conage-Pough, Miller excelled from the start. By the time the Pinellas Education Foundation awarded her a Doorways scholarship when she was a third-grader at Bay Vista Fundamental, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She also knew she wanted to attend an Ivy League school.

While she felt supported by her teachers at Bay Vista and then at Southside Fundamental Middle School, her peers did not always embrace her.

"A lot of people have seen the awards, but they haven't seen how many activities I've been involved in," she said. "I haven't had anything handed to me. I've worked for whatever I've received."

She is proud of having survived the IB program, getting accepted to Harvard and winning the Coca-Cola scholarship. The $4,000 award will help pay her tuition, which will cost $46,000 a year.

Miller credits her parents, Joan and Winston Miller of St. Petersburg, for encouraging her.

"They always give 110 percent in everything I do," she said. "They've always encouraged me to strive for my highest potential."

She says they also have instilled in her a commitment to encourage others. For years, she has been a motivational speaker for younger students.

"I want to encourage other minority students to enroll in honors programs and magnet programs," she said.

"It might be uncomfortable, but it is possible to go to Harvard without being a legacy. It takes hard work and a lot of dedication, but it is open to all people."

If she could give any advice to middle school students, it would be to waste no time.

"You have to start in sixth grade," she said. "It's never too late, but when you have a foundation built, it's a lot easier to go on from there."