Identical twins come from inner city to Iowa State on Gates Millennium Scholarships

AMES, Iowa -- When Iowa State's Derrick Rollins visited the inner-city home of two talented brothers and their family in Kansas City, Mo., he talked with them about the school's great facilities, supportive environment and dedication to success. But Rollins wasn't recruiting athletes. He was recruiting engineering students.

Rollins is assistant dean for diversity affairs in Iowa State University's College of Engineering. And his unique, personal approach to finding high-potential minority students and bringing them into the college has landed two of the nation's top recruits: identical twins Jonathan and Donathan Morgan.

Derrick Rollins

Rollins -- an award-winning professor of chemical and biological engineering -- is a Kansas City native. He makes good use of family and neighborhood connections in his hometown to gain the credibility needed to personally recruit promising students. A friend of his brother's knew the Morgan twins from church, where they are head ushers.

At the time of Rollins' living room visit last January, the twins were projected to be co-valedictorians at Ruskin High School. They taught Sunday school, tutored young children in their community, participated in the A+ program for college-bound students and aimed to be engineers.

"I heard they were very sharp, motivated, mature young men," Rollins said.

And he heard right. About three months later, both were awarded the prestigious and highly competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship, a full ride for as long as they want to take it -- even all the way through their doctoral degrees. The 10-year-old program for low-income minority students is funded by a $1 billion grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This year 1,000 scholars were selected from 20,000 applications. Selection criteria include a high grade point average and demonstrated leadership abilities through community service or extracurricular activities.

Same food, different majors

By the time the twins won the scholarships, they had already visited Iowa State via a chartered bus with their mother, sister, a teacher, and other area students and their families. They liked what they saw, recognized the financial challenges and began applying for scholarships.

"ISU seems like a good environment," Donathan said. "It's close to home. And everyone is really welcoming. Everywhere you walk, people say 'hi.' "

"And the school ranks high in engineering. We looked it up," Jonathan added.

Now they're enrolled. And although they've chosen different majors -- Jonathan's is mechanical engineering; Donathan's electrical engineering-- almost everything about them is identical.

"Our doctor recorded that we have the same height and weight at our last physical …" Donathan said.

" …and we both like a lot of the same things, for example, the colors blue, yellow and orange, and the Spicy Italian at Subway…" Donathan continued.

"…yeah, we like the same food -- seafood, pepperoni pizza and vegetables," Jonathan added.

"And we usually dress alike on special occasions…" Donathan said.

"… and sometimes we even have the same thoughts at the same time, but that's probably because we spend so much time together, not because we're psychic or anything," Donathan said.

"Yes, that's right," Jonathan agreed.

"And sometimes we find ourselves finishing each other's sentences," Jonathan said.

So why the different majors?

"It's not because we're different, but we thought it would be more beneficial, so we could work together in robotics," Donathan said. "We're both interested in robotics. We'll complement each other with these majors."

Hard work ahead

But the Morgan twins recognize they will have to work harder and study more than the average Iowa high school graduate entering engineering at Iowa State. Although at the top of their class, they still graduated from a school with deficiencies, Rollins pointed out.

"I'm not making a moral judgment here. It's very typical of an inner city school in terms of preparing students to study engineering," said Rollins, a product of inner city schools.

So the Morgans and 23 other incoming minority freshmen in engineering spent eight weeks this summer getting a much-needed boost in math and physics. They participated in the college's Summer Program for Enhancing Engineering Development (SPEED). The summer bridge program--which draws from Rollins' own experiences as an inner city student studying engineering -- helps prepare them for the rigors of engineering and college life.

"We have the top students in SPEED and we know they have the potential to go far," Rollins said. "But even they recognize how ill prepared they are in math and physics.

Rollins said the lack of basic math skills in inner city schools starts in the elementary level and continues through high school. Without that foundation, these high-potential students are at high risk for failure in engineering.

"At the beginning of SPEED, we gave the students a pretest. The average score was 18 percent in both math and physics," Rollins said.

At the end of the intensive eight-week booster program, the same test was repeated. The average score in physics skyrocketed to 90 percent; in math, it jumped to 79 percent.

"SPEED was an awesome transition between high school and college engineering," Donathan said. "On weekdays, we were in class literally all day doing math, physics and advanced algebra. And on the weekends, we visited several engineering companies, like John Deere, Pella Windows and Rockwell Collins."

The Morgan twins are nothing if not motivated. During the two-week break between the end of SPEED and the beginning of fall classes, they stayed on campus, studying math.

"SPEED helped us understand that we have a lot more learning to do," Jonathan said.

Rollins isn't worried. His "opinion and belief" about the twins is that with time, they're going to rise to be "two outstanding students."

And the Morgans agree that "patience and hard work" will lead to their success.

"You have to have the inner want to be successful," Jonathan said.

"We don't know exactly what we want to do, but we want to do something great," Donathan said. "We want to contribute to the world."