Cedric arrives at MIT, and he is surrounded by 52 minority math and science students like himself. He has joined the MITES—Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science—and suddenly feels less alone in his academic climb. At their introduction, the students hear from Leon Trilling, the distinguished professor who will be reviewing their progress and meeting with each student at the end of the program to assess their prospects for success at MIT as undergraduates. They are then put to work, and Cedric finds the curriculum much more difficult than anything he has faced at Ballou, in class or as extra credit work.
Cedric’s hard work has paid off, and he has finally managed to join a group of students who share his academic dedication and ambition. This will, however, also be the first of many experiences in which Cedric feels like he is an outsider in a world he so deeply wants to access. While he has earned his place in this program, he finds it much more challenging than he expected, and is faced with the possibility of failure, which was not a concern at Ballou.
After the initial testing period, Cedric finds himself placed in basic-level courses, with the exception of calculus, and even so, he spends each class period frantically taking notes on information that is almost entirely new to him. He realizes that not everyone is as intently focused as he is, and when he talks to his classmates, he learns that while it is not easy work for anyone, most of them have covered at least some of the material in their schools. He also realizes that most of them come from middle-class backgrounds, and they comment on his “funny,” “southern,” and “slangy” language and accent. He describes it as “ghetto,” and the other kids agree.
Like many students who excel in high school and go on to rigorous colleges or pre-college programs, Cedric is suddenly faced with a daunting academic challenge, and has not yet developed the skills to cope with this kind of experience. In addition to the difference in academic standards, Cedric is faced with the huge class differences among these nonwhite students that manifest themselves through language, dress, and social interactions.
Once he is more comfortable with the other kids in the program, Cedric decides to ask them about their SAT scores, and finds that their scores are much higher than his own. And when he gets up the courage to ask a fellow student for help with his calculus work, the student describes Cedric as academically inferior. Cedric doesn’t feel comfortable telling his mother about his troubles, so he calls a friend from Jefferson Jr. High, who tells him that he shouldn’t betray his own people by attending a “white” university, and that he will never be accepted by white people in general, even if he is academically successful. Cedric does not argue with him, because he wonders if what he is saying might be right.
Cedric is intensely focused on the SAT score as a measure of his academic abilities, and will constantly compare himself to those around him using this number. This only serves to reinforce his feelings of inferiority, leading to serious anxiety that he cannot even describe to his mother. The advice from a friend from home reiterates the same push towards mediocrity that he has heard throughout high school—he should not attempt to leave his comfort zone, as it will inevitably lead to pain.
Bill Ramsey, who runs the MITES program, is preparing to meet with Cedric—there has been a complaint from a female student that Cedric has been making inappropriate advances towards her, and Ramsey decides to have a talk with him. Before their meeting, Ramsey reviews his file and finds that Cedric is one of their inner-city students; in Ramsey’s time running the program, he has found that these students, who were originally the target audience for his program, are just too far behind academically to rise to the level of acceptance to MIT. Instead, he began to bring in more middle-class minority students, most of whom see this as little more than an opportunity to pad their resumes for college applications. In their meeting, Cedric notes that he expected there to be more students like him—inner-city students from low income backgrounds—and Ramsey is at a loss for words.
The director of the MIT program notes that most poor, inner-city students like Cedric are unlikely to succeed at a college like MIT, even with the help of strong academic support systems. This story often shifts back and forth between the story of Cedric as an individual—who is determined to succeed—and the demographic trends that make his future seem so bleak. While Ramsey wants Cedric and students like him to succeed, he knows that statistically, they are doomed to fail. Thus, when Cedric notes the lack of students like him at the program, Ramsey cannot argue with him, but cannot explain why, either.
It is Cedric’s birthday, and his MITES classmates surprise him with a paper bag filled with small, inexpensive gifts, including condoms, M&Ms, and a CD. They describe the gift as “ghetto,” which is how he has been describing himself in the past few weeks, which gives him a façade of coolness that he certainly has never had at Ballou. The conversation in his room turns to the upcoming trip to Cape Cod, and Cedric is forced to admit that he does not know how to swim, nor does he have a swimsuit. He begins to feel like more of himself during the last couple of weeks of the program, and has even pulled into the middle ranks of his calculus class. His confidence dissolves, however, when he meets with Leon Trilling.
This social experience at MIT foreshadows the experience Cedric will have at Brown—he will have to work hard to succeed academically and socially at the same time. He will have to find his place among students who have grown up in a very different context, and learn a whole new set of social skills in order to fit in. While at Ballou, Cedric was nerdy and effeminate, but in this new context he is seen as completely the opposite, as the epitome of black masculinity.
Professor Trilling has been monitoring the students’ work for the previous six weeks, and is meeting with each student individually to discuss their odds of getting into MIT as undergraduate students. When Trilling asks Cedric if he plans to apply, Cedric responds enthusiastically that he has dreamed about it for his entire life. Trilling responds that Cedric is not MIT material, based on his 910 score on the SAT. Cedric responds that he works much harder than anyone else, and that he will succeed because he wants it deep in his heart; Trilling tells him that he is setting himself up for disappointment, and that he should consider Howard University or the University of Maryland. Cedric is angry, and when he returns to his dorm room, he falls on to the bed, closes his eyes, and yells “Racist!”
This meeting between Cedric and Leon Trilling is a pivotal moment in the story, as it is the first time that someone has directly cast doubt on Cedric’s academic potential. Cedric is used to being the top student in his high school class, and has received the nearly unmitigated support of teachers and administrators, helping him develop a rock-solid faith in himself. Trilling’s assessment is devastating to Cedric, especially due to the racial tone of the conversation; Trilling suggests that Cedric shoot lower, and specifically suggests Howard University, a historically black college.
Back at home in Washington, D.C., Cedric feels restless. He has received offers from some private prep schools, where he could go for his senior year of high school, giving him an advantage when applying for colleges. But after his MIT experience, Cedric is unenthusiastic about spending his final year of high school surrounded by rich white kids in jackets and ties. He feels battered, and confused by his experience meeting other black students who were so drastically different from him, making him question what it means to be black in the first place. He wonders if he belongs at an Ivy League college, despite his burning desire only months earlier. Cedric realizes that for all of his struggles at Ballou, at least he knows who he is and where he stands there.
The experience at MIT has not completely broken Cedric’s spirit, but he is confused by the fact that he was such an outsider among other people of color. While he will later learn to navigate the complexities at the intersection of class and race, Cedric’s first experience with middle-class minorities has been overwhelming, and makes him question his long-held ambitions. This gives him a different perspective on his position at Ballou, where he will once again be considered the top student, and where his intellect and identity rarely come into question.