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Testing Personal Limits

Looking back on my life, I realize that there were a few instances that helped mold who I am today. These turning points were essential to my maturation. The one experience that stands out the most occurred during the summer of 1989 at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. I went to VMI's 3-week College Orientation Workshop ( COW) as a rising high school senior and came back with a more focused plan for my future. The COW program is designed to provide at-risk youth with opportunities and tools that will prepare them to achieve success during high school, college, and beyond. Did COW fulfill its purpose in me? The answer is a resounding YES!

Refuting the Naysayers

My personal background is comprised of such a mix of opportunity and deprivation that I often wonder whether I succeeded because of or in spite of it. During my youth in Lynchburg, Virginia, I was often told that engineering was too difficult and that I should focus on a less rigorous academic path. Because I was the product of a single-parent home, the COW summer program became a door of opportunity and good fortune during this critical time in my life.

The regimented program introduced me to mental and physical challenges far beyond anything I had ever experienced as a high school student. VMI cadets pushed me beyond my comfort zone and allowed me to test my inner strength in activities such as mountain climbing and cliff rappelling. Our daily calisthenics began at 6:00 a.m. with a 3-kilometer run, followed by a lengthy drill including push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. These experiences provided leadership opportunities during very intense moments and sealed a common bond of brotherhood. With each new triumph, the strenuous challenges gave us a newfound confidence and mindset that the seemingly impossible was possible.

In addition, COW stresses academic achievement, so all participants are expected to be on time for classes and maintain a B average in collegiate-level math, science, and English courses. COW responsibilities also include managing a living allowance and weekly laundry duty. As a high school student away from home for the first time, I loved the precollege, independent lifestyle and wanted more of it. I knew spending the next 4 years of my life there would continue to build my character and prepare me for the future. COW was the catalyst for this, and somehow, in the back of my mind, I felt I would enter VMI a boy and come out a man.

The COW Seed Flourishes

After successfully completing the program, I returned to high school with a tremendous amount of confidence in my ability to succeed in any circumstance. I graduated from high school in 1990 and entered VMI that fall. As a freshman I enrolled in advanced science and math courses I had never even considered taking before entering COW. I graduated from VMI in 1994 with a degree in electrical engineering and became a development engineer at IBM in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. (For more information, please see MiSciNet's Engineer's Corner.)

In line with the COW spirit of developing and supporting community, I founded Success Unlimited Inc., in Durham, North Carolina, in 2000. Success Unlimited is a nonprofit program designed to address the digital and social divide in the community through the application of technology. The confidence I derived from COW eventually led to my receiving a Black Engineer of the Year award in 2002. Today, I am fortunate to work with the brightest minds in the computer industry at IBM, and I owe a large portion of my success to the COW experience.

As a young man going through this arduous program, I often found myself questioning many of the rules, but today I understand the necessity of the values COW instilled. Reminiscing about COW's very disciplined system makes me truly appreciate my current life. Please see the text box below for other summer orientation workshops around the country and enhance your own career development.

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Jamel Lynch is a development engineer at IBM in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He may be reached at