After 40 years, MERIT program continues to help area students

By Tony E. Windsor

Like a proud father, John Hollis sits at the lunch table and rattles off name after name of young people who have gone on from their roots in Sussex County to become significantly successful in their academic and vocational careers. He lists former local high school students who are now studying at prestigious colleges including Yale, Howard University, Princeton and Virginia Tech; and those who are now working with major medical, engineering, legal and educational institutions. The names roll off his tongue with the same degree of excitement, pride and familiarity that would come as if he were talking about the accomplishments of his own family members.

In actuality, Hollis will tell you he is talking about members of his extended family; the "MERIT family." For almost four decades Hollis has been the grant patriarch of the Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training (MERIT) program that was birthed in Seaford in 1974. Initially created by engineers at the Seaford DuPont plant, the catalyst for the program was to help foster the academic success of minorities, namely those of African-American, Indian and Latino descent.

The success of MERIT over the past 40 years is evidenced not just by favorable rhetoric, but by facts that show since MERIT started, 330 minority participants have gone on to attend institutions of higher learning. That is 97 percent of all the students who have been enrolled in the program. This is a fact that Hollis is extremely proud of and one that keeps him involved, even after he has retired from his career in education. "This is not a job for me. It is a passion," he said. "I have watched child after child pass through this program and as they do they are able to find tremendous potential for success within themselves. It is a gratifying experience to be a part of."

While DuPont was crucial to cementing the foundation of the MERIT program, it was Hollis' contributions that laid a path for enhancement and expansion to the academic-based effort. "When I was first exposed to the MERIT program, it was set up to enable some very beneficial academically-related visits out of state for students in the program," he said. "This was great, but what I felt was missing was the consistency. There was a need to provide support that would be ongoing and not lost after the visit was complete."

This concept became the core of the MERIT program. Hollis began scheduling classroom session and team-building engineering competitions to compliment in- and out-of-state college visits and other academic enhancement field trips. With this formula, MERIT began to operate throughout the school year. Eventually with the in-kind support of Del Tech Community College, Hollis added a summer component to ensure there would be no loss of momentum while school is out of session.

Losing the longtime local support of the DuPont plant when the nylon manufacturer closed operations dealt the MERIT program a serious financial blow; however, in keeping with MERIT's philosophy of staying true to your life's mission, Hollis found support in other venues. The majority of the lost financial support was replaced by a vote of confidence from the Delaware Commission for Higher Education, which has been a faithful funder.

There have also been several corporate partners who value the contribution that MERIT is making to support the success of minority students and have supported the program in various ways. These include the University of Delaware, Delmarva Power, Trinity Transportation, and Delaware Technical Community College, Owens Campus.

A very valuable remnant of DuPont's initial support remains as a consistent part of the program. Retired DuPont engineer, Scott Davidson, of Seaford, is one of the first members of the DuPont engineer group that formed the program back in 1974. Davidson has remained close to MERIT, and like Hollis, has been completely committed to the program's continued success. Davidson serves as Chief Consultant to the program and has been instrumental over the years in working with the MERIT students in development of the annual engineering-based team projects, as well as helping the students to become educated on the engineering and science principals behind the project goals.

Another significant group of supporters of the MERIT program are those students who make up the alumnus of the program. In a spirit of "giving back," Hollis says many of the students and some of their family members have stayed involved in the program and offered various types of support.

Some students have come back to offer support in the way of offering their mentoring talents and others have made financial and in-kind contributions such as one former student who offered college entrance preparation courses, including a donation of SAT college exam study books for all MERIT students.

Parents are also an important component of the MERIT program Hollis said. He said parents help support the program while their children attend, but some remain involved even after their children have left the MERIT program and moved on to college.

Such is the case of John and Otelia Oliver of Seaford.

Their daughter, Joy, a MERIT alumnus and graduate of Seaford High School, graduated from the University of Delaware and has gone on to have an extremely successful post-college career. The Olivers have been a consistent dynamic of MERIT since Joy left for college in 1997. Otelia Oliver, a retired school teacher with 33 years of experience works as the program's Parent Coordinator. She and her husband have come to be actively involved in all aspects of the program.

This type of parental appreciation for the MERIT program is not unusual. Diaz Bonville's daughter, Jalissa, another MERIT alumnus, is a graduate of Howard University. Bonville, like the Olivers, remains committed to the MERIT program and has experienced first-hand how the program is benefitting young minority students.

Bonville is President of the Parent Advisory Group which meets during the first MERIT session each month. Parents of MERIT students are encouraged to attend workshops on college preparation, college financing classes, computer skill development and be in attendance for MERIT student engineering project presentations.

As part of this year's MERIT summer component a slate of guest speakers have been visiting the MERIT students while class is in session. The speakers are sharing their personal life-experiences as part of a "Refuse to Quit Series." Those who have addressed the students this year include Coach Bill Yoast, former T.C. Williams High School football coach and one of the subjects of the Disney movie, "Remember the Titans," Seaford Powerhouse yoga instructor, Bonnie Hernandez, and aerobics instructor, Toni Hall, who is also wife of 10-time national and five-time world powerlifting champion Mike Hall.

Another recent MERIT guest speaker was Dr. Mark Murphy, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education. Murphy visited MERIT on July 30. Murphy interacted with the students asking them to share their own academic experiences in terms of those that create excitement and those that may create a sense of intimidation.

Murphy then shared his own personal story about his time as a junior in high school when he quit an honors English class because he did not feel he was "smart enough" to be successful and pass the class. He said he quit the honors English class at the same time he decided to change instruments in high school band, from the trumpet to the saxophone. He admits that the saxophone was extremely intimidating because of the many keys it had, as opposed the mere three on the trumpet.

He enlisted the aid of his band director who tutored him on the instrument and along with practicing diligently, his mother also helped him get structured saxophone lessons. In time Murphy not only mastered the saxophone in high school band, he went on to be successful in playing with area swing bands during college.

"I quit honors English because I did not think I was as smart as the other kids and therefore believed I could not pass the course," he said. "Yet, at the same time I took on a very sophisticated musical instrument and because I believed that I could learn to play, I studied harder, got help, and mastered the saxophone. If I had applied that same strategy of hard work and commitment to the honors English class, I would have mastered that class as well. It is important to understand that no one is born smart; you get smart. You do it through effort and hard work. That may sound obvious, but so many people simply do not believe it."

Murphy told the MERIT group that he is excited about what the program is providing to students in terms of college and life preparation. He lauded the efforts of John Hollis and commended him for his commitment to the students and the MERIT program. "John stops by my office to talk to me every couple of months," Murphy said. "We talk about a host of things he is involved in that effect people in Delaware.

But, I have to tell you that nothing excites him more than when he is talking about MERIT and the students who are involved in the program. His eyes light up and he beams with pride. Having visited MERIT, I understand completely why he feels as he does."

Hollis says MERIT not only focuses on the academic enhancement of the students, but stays committed to the whole child. "By involving the family, teaching a need for personal responsibility, demanding a "pay it forward" attitude and a lifelong affection for "giving back," the MERIT program prepares the student not just for college success, but personal life and career success," he said.

It is evident that given his infectious excitement when talking about the MERIT program and its 40-year history in Seaford and Sussex County, there is absolutely no indication that John Hollis is planning to retire from the program anytime soon.

The MERIT program will like its paternal guardian, continue on as a support for young people who are ready to face and overcome the challenges that may come in the pursuit of academic and life success.

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