A clerical error back in seventh grade set Dr. Ann Chester on her career patheven if she didnt realize it at the time. Chester is a longtime West
Virginia University educator and social justice advocate who on Monday (Jan. 19) received the 2004 Martin Luther King Achievement Award from WVU s Center for Black Culture and Research.
The award was presented during the centers 19th annual Unity Breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader, who was gunned down in Memphis in 1968. A scholarship in Kings name was also presented to WVU student James Greene, of Beckley, who is active in campus ministries.
Monday was a national day of remembrance for Dr. King.
While King has been gone for nearly 40 years now, Chester said his message of hope and opportunity remains very much aliveand just as vital as ever.
�€~Hopeis what I think of when I think of Dr. King,said Chester, who founded a summer science and technology learning camp for underprivileged West Virginia school children.
In the face of the most extreme oppression, he still held out hope,she said.And he gave hope to others. Its an honor to receive an award that carries his name.
Since 1994, Chester has given hopeand a college experienceto thousands of West Virginia youngsters who might otherwise have been swept under societys rug.
Thats the year Chester, an assistant vice president at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, founded her Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA)orHistaas its commonly known across the state.
Every summer, around 800 West Virginia junior high and high school students meet on the WVU campus to simply engage in learning. Sessions are taught by WVU faculty and public school teachers, and a HSTA kid might spend a typical day doing a little gene-splicing in the morning followed by DNA analysis in the afternoon.
This is serious science,said Chester, a botanist by training.But that doesnt mean they cant have fun doing it.
And again, she said, that doesnt mean they shouldnt have the opportunity in the first place.Everyone deserves a chance to succeed,she said.We always want to pigeon-hole students, and catagorize them.
She learned that the hard way as a seventh-grader back home in Charlottesville, Va. Chester was always a bright, high-achieving student. Her parents had gone to college and it was simply understood that she would go, too.
In seventh grade, though, she entered a new, consolidated school, where her past test scores were promptly misread. A college-bound student was suddenly toldthough not necessarily unkindlythat she simply wasnt good enough to go on after high school.
The message was, �€~Youll do well just to finish high school,she remembered.They told us, �€~Well be proud if youre a gas station attendant, a waitress or a seamstress.I was devastated.
Her grades dropped from As to Fs. She was acting up in class and crying at home. Her parents investigated. After six weeks, the error was discovered. She was transferred to another class geared to a college-bound curriculumbut it took her two years to get her grades back in line.
Two years for just six weeks,she said.I never forgot that. And what was six weeks for me is a lifetime for others. That doesnt have to be.
Chesters office in the HSC is a bustling place. Her desk is full of paperworkIm always applying for grants,she saidand her shelves are heaped with books and snapshots of her family. Shes married to WVU biology professor Jim McGraw. The couple has three children in college and high school.
Her HSC colleagues, including Dean of Medicine Robert DAlessandri, wrote letter after letter nominating her for the King award, and for that, shes understandably humble and grateful, she said.
One of the more meaningful pieces of correspondence came before that, however. It was an unsigned commencement program from a ceremony last spring at a college in West Virginia. One name was circled in inka HSTA kid who had dropped out of the program a few years back.
She was a delightful kid, but she was a bit of a wild card,Chester said.She left our program, but she got herself into college. She earned a degree in social work. Getting this in the mail was the greatest thing in the world. It was just her way of saying, �€~Hey, I did this.
After all, Chester saideveryone deserves a chance.