NBA Legend Aims to Help At-Risk Youth Earn PhDs

As part of a personal mission, Magic Johnson aims to open more Bridgescape academies across the country -- he said there are currently 17 -- as well as rally participants in his "Friends of Magic" group to provide students with resources and assistance.
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I saw Magic Johnson cry today.

The NBA legend and business titan stood in front of a crowd of reporters and students at the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood.

He was planning to address a budding partnership between his new organization "Friends of Magic" and his Bridgescape academies, which offer students another route to earn a high school diploma after some either drop out of school, or face the risk of dropping out.

One of the students, Haman Cross, spoke about his success in the academy before introducing Johnson to the crowd -- and that student's story moved Johnson to tears.

"Listening to that young man, you'd never thought he was out of school," Johnson said. "All you want to do is help these incredible young people achieve their goals in life."

Cross told The Huffington Post that he plans to pursue degrees in psychology and sociology -- subjects he became interested in after reading the work of Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist and author who often explores the social sciences.

This student's success story and future plans are real-life examples of defying the odds when statistics show black and Latino students have lower graduation rates than their white peers nationwide, as well as are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.

Closing this gap could systemically impact the black and Latino communities. After all, there will be more jobs over the next decade in STEM fields than non-STEM careers and workers in STEM earn 26 percent more than their peers, according to the Bureau of Labor.

So, as part of a personal mission, Johnson aims to open more Bridgescape academies across the country -- he said there are currently 17 -- as well as rally participants in his "Friends of Magic" group to provide students with resources and assistance.

"Our goal is to see more young people reach their fullest potential," Natalie Williams, vice-president of strategic alliances for this initiative, said in a written statement. "Friends of Magic will put the resources where they are needed the most. This includes providing scholarships, mentoring programs, and internships that propel each and every high school graduate toward their goals."

How exactly does Johnson see his efforts making a difference? It comes down to resources, he told The Huffington Post.

Inner-city students are often in classrooms with ridiculously high student-to-teacher ratios, so they rarely receive one-on-one attention, he said. Plus, many inner-city schools don't have the funds for top-notch technology, and also brand-new books.

"So now what we're saying, here, we do have the computers, we have everything new," Johnson said. "And also they can learn at their own pace, everybody can't learn in a big environment."

I overheard a reporter at the event mutter to a colleague that while cities across the country are shutting down more and more schools, programs such as Bridgescape are opening more and more of these learning environments.

Johnson's new initiative also aims to offer scholarships and financial support to students pursuing higher education. When it comes to STEM fields, a recent study suggests that minorities face larger amounts of debt than their peers to pay off a STEM-related doctorate.

"Broadening STEM talent and a diverse pool is incredibly important," study author Courtney Tanenbaum, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, told The Chronicle Of Higher Education in May. "But these numbers show that debt is another factor that is contributing to the low numbers of underrepresented minorities in the sciences."

Specifically, only 51 percent of black students and 64 percent of Latino students earned STEM doctoral degrees in 2010 debt-free, while 73 percent of their white and Asian peers did the same.

"Let's give them the tools to succeed," Johnson said. And I agree.

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