The Next Campus Rockstar: a Math Student?

By Jeff Calareso

Carson Scholars Donor Party

Dr. Benjamin Carson is a widely-acclaimed neurosurgeon credited with an array of accomplishments and innovations in his field, including the world's first successful separation of twins conjoined at the head. Among his many honors is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In addition to his medical work, Dr. Carson is also a passionate advocate for education. He and his wife began CSF in 1994 in order to award college scholarships and build reading rooms throughout the United States. To learn more about the work of CSF, we spoke with Executive Director Amy Warner. Can you describe how you came to be involved with CSF and what your current role entails?

Amy Warner: Both of my parents are educators and they taught my siblings and me the importance of a strong education. Additionally, my husband has been active with CSF for many years, so we regularly attended the scholarship banquets and events. I was always thrilled for the young academic superstars and very impressed with Dr. and Mrs. Carson as role models. Each year their message would resonate with me, and that's when I decided that I wanted to join their cause. As the Executive Director of CSF, I'm responsible for the daily operations of the organization, finances, marketing and fundraising. Dr. Carson is still very active as a surgeon. What is his role with CSF?

AW: Dr. and Mrs. Carson are co-founders of the organization. They actively attend board and Executive Committee meetings, regional banquets and organizational events. Dr. Carson, who is very sought after as a public speaker, oftentimes shares his passion for the organization with the audience when he addresses corporations and groups.

EP: One of the factors that motivated the Carsons to begin CSF was a study that stated U.S. students perform very poorly in math and science. How do the CSF scholarships address deficiencies in these subject areas?

AW: While our scholarship program doesn't specifically single out science and math, we encourage students to work hard in all academic subjects. In order to qualify for a Carson Scholarship, a student must have at least a 3.75 GPA in all academic subjects, and be involved in community service above and beyond what is required by school. Beyond that, our applications require an essay and a teacher recommendation. We choose our winners based solely on their applications. Our goal is to create academic role models in schools, so that it's considered 'cool' to get good grades. The big picture is changing how we, as a nation, recognize and reward students who are doing the right thing.

Incidentally, since Dr. Carson is so well known as a surgeon, our program does seem to attract a large number of students who are interested in math and science. In a recent survey of our alumni (Carson Scholars who have graduated from high school), we found that more than half are majoring in math or science in college and grad school. Many of the $1,000 Carson Scholarships are given to high school students. However, CSF provides scholarships to students as young as fourth grade, with the money being paid directly to the students' eventual college of choice. Why focus on such a broad range of students, including those who are so young?

AW: Our focus on students starting in fourth grade comes from the belief that if students are taught early to excel, they have a higher chance of educational success later in life. Unfortunately, by junior or senior year of high school, many students are already lost. If we can get them involved and motivated when they are young, we believe they will remain on the right track.

In addition, since the scholarship money is for college regardless of the age of the winner, our program teaches the value of both immediate and delayed gratification. Scholarship winners are immediately gratified by the recognition they receive at the awards banquet and in their schools and communities. They learn the value of delayed gratification by receiving an award statement every year showing the interest that their scholarship money has earned, and by ultimately receiving that money when they enroll in a 4-year college or university. Many students state that knowing - starting at a young age - that they had at least some money for college encouraged them to seek out other scholarship opportunities. In addition to the scholarship money, Carson Scholars receive a medal and a trophy. What is the significance of giving both a medal and a trophy?

AW: Both the medal and the trophy are part of the recognition element of our program. The medal is awarded directly to the student at the awards banquet. It is a symbol of achievement, and many of our scholars keep their medals well into their college years. The trophy, on the other hand, is important in making our scholars role models in their schools. Our trophies are in school display cases right alongside sports trophies, elevating the importance of academics in our schools. Many schools officially receive the trophy in their end-of-year awards ceremonies, recognizing the child who honored the school with it, and some devote an entire display case to the scholar, with the scholarship winner's picture. Since 1996, the number of scholarships awarded has grown from 25 to approximately 600. How has this impressive growth been possible?

AW: Since 1996, we have awarded 4,800 scholarships and have scholars in 45 states and Washington, D.C. As a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, CSF is financed entirely through individual and corporate donations. Over 90 cents of every dollar contributed is directly invested into our educational programs. We also rely heavily on good word-of-mouth from our scholars and their families and communities, our volunteers, donors, board of directors and dedicated staff, as well as the cooperation from teachers and school administrators in nominating and recommending deserving young students. To students who might be interested in pursuing a scholarship, what advice would you provide?

AW: We would encourage them to talk to their schools to find out about getting an application. All applicants must be nominated by their schools, and individual students can't request an application, so getting the school involved is the first step. Beyond that, students should make sure that they are doing their best in school (have a 3.75 GPA or above on a 4.0 scale) and that they are highly involved in community service. Humanitarian qualities are integral to the definition of a Carson Scholar. Several of our scholars have even founded their own nonprofits before they've finished high school! Also, our application includes a checklist of required materials - so they should make sure they remember to send everything in on time!

Carson Reading Room Through the Ben Carson Reading Project, you create reading rooms in schools. How do these rooms encourage literacy?

AW: Dr. Carson credits reading as the key to his academic success. As a young boy, Ben was the dumbest kid in his class! That was until his mother forced him to start reading two books a week and writing book reports. Since reading was the catalyst for his eventual turnaround in school, CSF wanted to offer this opportunity to other young students.

Ben Carson Reading Rooms place books in an environment within the school where kids will want to spend time. Some of the reading room themes include swamps, outer space, wonderland, the circus and even a diner motif! Each room is warm, inviting and fun, and children are encouraged to choose and read whatever book interests them. Children lose themselves in books in these reading havens. While they're reading for pleasure, they're learning spelling, syntax and other critical learning skills that will help them become better students. Reading Room Coordinators capture either minutes read or levels that student progress through to help measure the program's success. Last year, students spent over 15 million minutes reading in Ben Carson Reading Rooms during the course of the school year. How do you decide which schools are recipients of reading rooms?

AW: Typically the donor who is funding the project has an affinity for a specific school and directs the project to that particular school. In some cases we are asked to suggest schools that would be strong candidates. The CSF regularly meets with schools and ascertains need and motivation for the room. We keep a list of these schools to refer to when asked. Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers about CSF?

AW: Yes! Here are two statistics to keep in mind that support our mission to elevate academic excellence:

First, our nation produces about 60,000 engineers per year. 40% are from other countries. China produces 392,000 engineers per year. In order to stay competitive in a global economy that is technically advanced, we need to encourage students to pursue careers in math, science and engineering. Education is the great equalizer!

Second, did you know that only seven out of a million make it as starters in the NBA, and only one in 10,000 makes it in any lasting way in sports or entertainment? Less than one percent of individuals who attend college on athletic scholarships go on to play professional sports. We need to encourage students who are high academic achievers to strive for academic excellence. By rewarding academic success, we will be shifting the priorities in society and building a strong future.

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