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Senator Van Hollen talks education during UMBC visit

Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen paid a visit to UMBC last Friday to tour the campus and have a discussion about education with a few select students and UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski.

Van Hollen was elected a United State Senator back in January, after serving as representative to the state’s eighth district since 2002. He has recently introduced, along with other Democrats, the Protect DREAMer Confidentiality Act of 2017, which would protect the private information of young immigrants who applied for Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals.

His visit started with a short meeting with students, who represented various majors, primarily in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. Most students held special distinctions as Meyerhoff scholars and members of the Honors College. Many had work or internship experience in prestigious organizations, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Intel, and the National Institute of Health.

“I wanted him to know with some specificity about our strengths as a school,” said Hrabowski. “We are all very unique.”

Van Hollen had the opportunity to get to know some of the students and their many accomplishments.

“What an impressive group,” he stated. “Freeman often talks about his pride in all of you.”

The senator also wanted to know when most students’ interest in the STEM fields actually began, as encouraging students towards STEM is an area in which educators often struggle with.

“When did you decide to embark on that future? I’ve been told that middle school is crucial so that interest can develop later on; how was it for all of you?” he asked.

Naomi Mburu, senior chemical engineering and physics major, cited lack of encouragement from her teachers in middle and high school. “My teachers encouraged me in the Humanities. I didn’t know what engineering was until I got here, basically,” she said. “People I knew in STEM didn’t look like me.”

Christian Beam, senior computer science major, had a different story:

“In eighth or ninth grade, I got interested in computers after my Xbox broke. I fixed it, but I still didn’t know why things worked the way they did,” he said. Beam is also the captain of UMBC’s Cyber Dawgs cyber defense team. The team made it to first place in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition earlier this year in San Antonio, Texas.

Van Hollen and Hrabowski also praised UMBC students’ versatility beyond STEM. “We like our students to be ingrained in the Humanities, or else they become robots,” said Hrabowski.

Students also had the opportunity to ask Van Hollen questions of their own. One of the topics raised was how to increase the numbers of engineers and other STEM majors in government. The senator pointed out issues with the recruitment framework:

“I think we need to reform the government recruitment process across the board. It’s very outdated. A lot of times you’ll apply somewhere and never get a response. We’re working to modernize the federal government recruitment system.”

The current volatile political climate was also discussed. One question, posed by Hrabowski, referred to what universities could do more of to “produce listening citizens who are willing to understand other points of view.”

“We should not be afraid of ideas,” said Van Hollen. “Listen to each other, and always question your assumptions. Behind most of our beliefs there are some assumptions we’re not always aware of.”