A Question of Geography
I promised a few weeks ago that I'd write more about the Davidson Fellows, the decorated group of 17 young men and women who will be awarded $10,000-$50,000 scholarships in Washington DC in late September. I still hope to connect individually with some of them in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, hunting through the $50,000 winners' bios, I noticed an interesting theme.
Raw talent can happen anywhere. But geography plays an important role in turning that talent into achievement.
I noted, for instance, that Davidson Fellow Laureate Katherine Orazem, a young writer, comes from Ames, Iowa. This is a small Iowa town, but not just any small Iowa town. It's also the home of Iowa State University. University communities have certain features that make them more welcoming for gifted young people than other places. For starters, professors at major research universities are smart people who often have smart kids. Having a concentration of smart kids increases the chances that the school district will choose to cluster and challenge them. That doesn't happen everywhere, as I've often written about my home of South Bend, IN (home to the University of Notre Dame and some awful secondary schools). But the odds are on your side.
In addition, the universities themselves offer resources that curious kids can take advantage of. You can audit classes (or enroll for credit). You can find mentors in the form of graduate students and professors. If your talents lie in scientific pursuits, you can possibly gain access to lab equipment that no secondary school will ever be able to purchase.
You don't have to live in a university town to succeed, of course. There are tales of previous Davidson Fellows traveling multiple hours several times per week to do lab work at far away universities. This requires parents who are particularly motivated to commute, or who have the time to do so. This is extremely tough to pull off in a two-income family, which is why it's easier to live in a university town in the first place.
So Yale Fan, winner of a $50,000 prize for technology, lives in Beaverton, Oregon (close enough to Portland State University to do research there). Alexandra Courtis, another young scientist, is from Davis, California. Madhavi Gavini, whose work combines medicine and science, is from Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University. The lone musician of the group, Todd Kramer, lives in Port Jefferson, NY, which is on Long Island. While Port Jefferson is not a university town, it is the final stop on a branch line of the Long Island Railroad. I don't know if Kramer took the train or his parents drove him into Manhattan, but Penn Station is just a 5-10 minute subway ride south of the Juilliard school, where he studied.
In other words, geography matters. A child with much musical potential born in rural West Virginia will have a difficult time finding teachers and mentors to nurture that talent. While we all love the story of a diamond in the rough, even these gems must be cut and polished in order to shine. Some locations do a much better job of cutting and polishing than others.
I'm not sure what is to be done about this. If all teachers were trained in identifying gifted children, and all schools had partnerships with the nearest major universities, and all states had residential schools for gifted high schoolers, maybe geography wouldn't be so crucial. But for now, it is.