By Elaine Cassel
Three young African-American men from high-risk backgrounds made a pact that they would all graduate from medical school. Hoping to inspire other young men and women and educate parents and teachers about what it took for them to survive, Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt wrote The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream
The book illustrates the psychological construct known as resilience. Family instability, child abuse, homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, living in a crime-infested neighborhood--all these factors put children at risk for problems in social and emotional development. Resilience is an individual characteristic that permits successful development in the face of significant challenges like these. It has been studied in a wide variety of adverse situations throughout the world, including war, natural disaster, family violence, and poverty.
The story of Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt is a collective case study of the challenges faced by many African-American men growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in inner cities, when neighborhood decay and violence, much of it brought on by drug-directed gang activity, threatened normal development. As teenagers growing up in a tough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, they had family and personal problems as well. None lived with their fathers and only one was raised by his mother—and though she was loving, she was a drug addict.
The three became friends in high school (all were intelligent enough to have been chosen to attend a magnet school for gifted students) and encouraged each other to stay out of trouble. They had jobs and clung to the family support they had. George Jenkins had a lifelong dream of being a dentist. After a brush with the law in high school, he decided he never wanted to get in trouble again. He did not want to spend a substantial part of his life in prison, like so many of his peers and African-American men across the country (one-third of whom will be incarcerated during their lifetimes, according to U.S. government statistics). When a recruiter from Seton Hall University offered an assistance package of tuition and stipends for minority students who entered its pre-dental and pre-medical programs, George convinced Sampson and Rameck to apply with him.
They made a pact—hence the title of this book. Sampson and Rameck would become doctors and George a dentist. They would not let any of the group drop out. Indeed, they made it through college and went on to medical and dental school. In 2001, Sampson and Rameck got their medical degrees and George his dentistry degree. They plan to practice in Newark, New Jersey, serving people like themselves.
George, Sampson, and Rameck had many of the personal qualities and opportunities that psychologists believe are identified with resilience. Specifically, resilient children tend to be intelligent and to have easy dispositions. They have high self-esteem, talent, and faith in themselves. They are cheerful, focused, and persistent in completing a task. These characteristics are evident in the men's obtaining their medical and dental degrees, both arduous programs requiring substantial dedication and sacrifice.
Another important contributor to resilience is having significant relationships with family members and caring adults outside the family, particularly at school. The three doctors had a counselor at Seton Hall who joined in their pact—she, too, would not let them fail. The men also benefited from affirmative action programs at Seton Hall and medical and dental school, and these programs provided them with academic and financial assistance.
What psychologists have typically not mentioned as a factor in resilience is strong friendships with positive peers. Surely, the most critical factor in George, Sampson, and Rameck’s success was their strong friendship and love for each other that continues to this day.
George, Sampson, and Rameck have set up a foundation with the book’s proceeds to help minority students go to medical and dental school. But they are doing more than giving away money. They are practicing their professions where they grew up, where crime, poverty, joblessness, and drugs still rule. They are providing the community and its citizens with positive, professional role models. In these capacities they will be supportive adults enhancing the resilience of young people like they once were.
Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College