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Samuel Best is a statistical outlier.
He's a successful scholar and the valedictorian of Richmond's Armstrong High School's class of '08, with very close to a 4.0 grade-point average. He's been accepted to the University of Virginia, where he plans to pursue a medical degree. His family is middle class -- mom's a teacher for Richmond Public Schools; dad works for the Virginia Employment Commission -- and happy. None of these things makes him special.
But Best is a young black male, and his race and gender make him very special when coupled with his school and family background.
Statistically he's more likely to end up in prison than in school pursuing an advanced degree. By nature of his success as an at-risk minority, Best also seems more likely to receive scholarships and other economic assistance. That he's still trying to figure out how to pay for college makes him that much more the unlikely story.
"When you look at African-American men, they say we don't go to college -- that we all tend to end up in prison -- and he isn't in prison," says Terone Green, chief executive officer for the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance, a scholarship organization that seeks to promote black students through partnerships with universities. "The irony is [Best] may not have the money to go on to school."
Success stories like Best's are not uncommon to Green. Every year around this time, it's his job to find the good kids who have defied the odds. Who deserve a chance. Who need help getting that chance. Best's failure to win the financial assistance of scholarships and grants, though, is uncommon.
"They felt that I'd be all right," Best says. "They said I didn't really have a hard story to tell." He speculates on his lack of financial help as he heads off to college this fall. "It's kind of messed up that it had to work out this way. But it happened for a reason. Everything happens for a reason."
Green thinks the reason for Best's financial difficulties speaks volumes about society's willingness to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to calling for black men to rise above the odds.
"As a valedictorian, you would think that [being given a chance] would not be a problem," says Green, whose organization expects to give Best only a few thousand dollars of the tens of thousands he'll need to complete his degree. Aside from the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance scholarship, Best has little else in the pipeline.
"I don't know if it's because he's top in his class at a black school," Green says, "but it seems to me people should be paying even closer attention because he's defied the odds."
Charleita Richardson agrees. Richardson is president of Partnership for the Future, a nonprofit high school internship program that's providing Best with his only other scholarship money, which likely will amount to about $3,000 -- and that's only if Best can earn another $3,000 in matching funds. As it stands, he has only about $1,070 that would be matched.
According to the University of Virginia, a year's tuition will cost Best nearly $9,500. Add to that other associated costs, including books, room and board, and by the university's own estimate, a year of schooling costs more than $20,000.
Ironically, had his family been poorer, Best would be in better shape for the future.
"I was told that if we had made $40,000, he would have gotten a free ride at U.Va.," says his mom, Robin Best. "I think we make about $60,000 or $65,000."
She laughs at the notion of paying her son's way on student loans. She has four more children she hopes will follow him to college, and the equation used to figure what percentage will be provided to Samuel by government student loan programs doesn't account for tuition multiplied by five.
"He's not the only student in [the Partnership for the Future] program who is facing this situation," Richardson says. Her organization provides opportunities mostly for urban students who otherwise might lack opportunities to move up. "I definitely think it's a bigger problem."
The problem, she says, is that when kids like Best try to make it, they often go unrewarded for their efforts.
"I place the responsibility on our students as well: Did you send out every scholarship application that came to you?" she asks (Best didn't). "But the community as a whole, we have to step up to the plate. These are our future leaders." S