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“They told me I wasn't college material,” Ann Chester recalls. “They told me my future held a job as a seamstress or a gas station attendant.” Her response was predictable.
With the blessing and guidance of Robert M. D'Alessandri, vice president of WVU's Health Sciences Center, Chester crafted a plan for the Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA), including after-school science clubs in local communities plus a summer program on the WVU campus, where high school students could work in research labs and meet potential role models.
WVU won a competitive $175,000 grant from HHMI to establish HSTA in 1994 in Kanawha and McDowell counties. Kanawha, home to West Virginia's capital of Charleston, has a mostly urban population. McDowell, in the southernmost part of the state, is mostly rural. Both counties have large percentages of economically disadvantaged people.
Steve Starks, publisher of a statewide minority newspaper and leader of West Virginia's African American community, jumped on Chester's bandwagon. “In HSTA, I saw hope for students who might otherwise fall by the wayside,” he says. “I saw exposure to information that can put them in a position to succeed in life.”
With Starks in her camp, Chester earned the trust of his constituents. She also reorganized the local boards that ran the programs in each county so that they might intimately involve parents, teachers, and community leaders.
“Ann was able to develop remarkable rapport with the African American community,” says D'Alessandri. “She was able to identify community leaders, and she invited them to run their own programs. Ann works from a collaborative model, not a hierarchical one. She not only considers the opinions of those she's working to serve, she welcomes them.”
The reforms quickly paid off. In 1995, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation added $2 million to the HSTA coffers, citing strong community-based support as a major factor in its decision to help fund the program. With this additional funding, Chester expanded HSTA to 10 of West Virginia's 55 counties.
But she wasn't satisfied. She kept applying for grants, building the program, and success bred success. Soon the Coca-Cola Foundation added another $200,000, and before long the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health joined in supporting HSTA. In 1999 and 2003, HHMI awarded new competitive grants to WVU's HSTA program.
Chester and her community-based boards even took on state government, approaching the West Virginia legislature with an audacious proposal: tuition waivers for HSTA students at state colleges and universities. It took three years and countless visits to legislators by HSTA students and their parents, but in 1997 the legislature unanimously approved tuition waivers at any state college, university, or professional school for any student finishing all four years of high school in the HSTA program.
Illustration: David Brinley