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You never know what’s going to inspire an interesting piece of academic research. Imagine, for instance, that you are a third-grade teacher, at the very beginning of a new school year.

Marijuana Pepsi VANDYCK: There was a teacher sitting at the table in front of me. “My test scores are going to be S-H-I-T. I’m sick of this S-H-I-T.”

This was in Atlanta.

VANDYCK: Correct. I came to a new school and they had just passed out the class list. And on my class list I had the first and last name of the student and then we had the gender, and we were to use the class list to make the name tags.

That’s when she heard the other teacher worrying about her test scores.

VANDYCK: And she was angry. “Every effing year I get these bad-A students and my test scores are going to be in the toilet.” And she ran over to the principal and they had it out. And I am sitting there, this new teacher at this school, looking at the front and back of my paper, because clearly I’m missing some sheets of paper. Clearly, she’s received something with more information than I have. I’m like, “Okay, wait. What am I missing? What is the matter? What does she know about her test scores? I don’t have any test scores. Where are the test scores?” And they’re like, “Look at their names. Look at their names.”

What kind of names did these kids have?

VANDYCK: Jemar, Jamia, Jalia, Linea, Kanea, Dequan, Laquan.

They had distinctively African-American names. Which apparently led the angry teacher, who was white, to surmise that they would be poor students, and that they’d make her look bad.

VANDYCK: And that is the catalyst that started this research project.

That research project would eventually turn into a Ph.D. dissertation. Its title?

VANDYCK: “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions.”

And the author of this dissertation?

VANDYCK: Dr. Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck.

If anyone could understand the friction created by a teacher’s expectations over a student’s name, it might be a black woman who grew up with that name: Marijuana Pepsi. Last week on Freakonomics Radio, we asked, “how much does a name really matter?

Steven LEVITT: So the ultimate question we wanted to answer is, does your name matter for the economic life that you end up leading?

That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author.

LEVITT: Are people who are “saddled” with distinctively black names facing a burden when they enter the labor market?

Levitt, along with the economist Roland Fryer, analyzed a large, rich set of data.

LEVITT: It encompassed the birth certificate of every person born in the state of California between 1960 and the year 2000, and it included the name of the baby, the first and last name of the mother, along with a lot of other information that gave you a hint at some of the economic circumstances.

The researchers could then track these babies as they grew up, and see whether their first name affected their economic outcomes.

LEVITT: And we were able to see something quite remarkable, which is that the name that you were given at birth seemed not to matter at all to your economic life.

VANDYCK: So I know their conclusions, and I am also in agreement with their conclusions, just based on my own research. However, I can see where someone might question that. That’s the thing with research. We’re only interested in the end result. “The study shows this.” But we miss everything in between. Which is why I like the qualitative in addition to the quantitative. Because the quantitative gives us those numbers. But the qualitative tells that story.

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A couple months ago, Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck received her doctorate, in higher-education leadership, from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This generated quite a bit of media attention:

NPR: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck has become doctor—

The Hill: Earned her Ph.D. from Cardinal Stritch—

CNN: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck — yes, that’s her real name.

VANDYCK: Well, I have been in the news quite a while, from the time I graduated from high school. And the world has followed me through high school graduation, my master’s, and now you can’t get a Ph.D. without following up on the other stories. So here we are.

She got her Ph.D. at age 46.

VANDYCK: It took about eight years total. Some starts and stops. And job changes. Life.

What was her graduation day like?

VANDYCK: It was surreal. I was just blessed to be there. I was very humbled. I felt like crying. I felt like jumping for joy. I remember driving down the highway and grabbing the steering wheel and screaming out loud a few times.

Cardinal Stritch graduates are given the option to reserve classrooms where a large number of guests can watch the commencement broadcast. But she kept her party fairly small.

VANDYCK: My husband, Frederick Vandyck, my son, Isaac Sawyer; my sister, my mother, and a few nieces and nephews. And a couple of cousins. I didn’t want the public to come.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Why was that?

VANDYCK: I’m an introvert. I’m laid back, I’m nervous at times, and so I wanted to just make sure that I did what I needed to do for the day, and at the same time I want to make sure that I’m not minimizing the experiences of the students who participated in my study, and this is a serious research study despite some of the jokes and memes that come up about a Dr. Marijuana Pepsi.

She was born in Chicago, in 1972.

VANDYCK: My mom has always been an entrepreneur. She has always made clothes, owned clothing shops. Gardening, she’s been featured in a few newspaper articles for her gardening skills. My father was a university bus driver, and so he drove the bus for the campuses in Chicago.

DUBNER: Was it your mom who named you or your dad or a combination?

VANDYCK: I believe it was my mother. My father is a Jehovah’s Witness and he says that it was all her, and I tend to believe him.

DUBNER: Okay. So why’d she choose the name?

VANDYCK: She shared with me that she believes that my name would take me around the world, and that was always the answer I got when I asked her.

DUBNER: Hey, she wasn’t wrong.

VANDYCK: No, she was not wrong.

Marijuana Pepsi was the middle of three sisters. The others were named Kimberly and Robyn.

VANDYCK: And I asked her, “So why couldn’t Kim and Robyn go around the world? What was it when you looked down at me the first time and you held me, that made you go, “Oh, this is the one. Marijuana Pepsi.” So, of course there are no answers to that, and she’ll go to her grave without answering it further than she already has. I don’t even ask anymore.

DUBNER: I mean, did you at some point ask your mother, “Were you smoking a lot of marijuana? Were you drinking a lot of Pepsi? Did you ever ask her that?

VANDYCK: No, I have not ever asked my mom that, and I’ll just say I’ve known my mom all of my life, and some questions I don’t have to ask her at all, and leave it there.

DUBNER: Meaning you’re sure she did or sure she didn’t smoke marijuana?

VANDYCK: Meaning that I know my mom. I know her personality. And she is a lover of life, and I just believe nothing’s off the table.

DUBNER: What about you and marijuana and/or Pepsi? Are you an avid or even occasional partaker of either?

VANDYCK: No. I have never drank and I’ve never smoked. I’ve never once smoked cigarettes. I’ve never taken a toke. I’ve literally done nothing.

When she was very young, Marijuana Pepsi lived with her dad, in Chicago.

VANDYCK: I attended an almost predominantly African-American school. Everyone knew my name. Teachers called me by my name. No issues. I did not understand that my name was unusual until I entered into the fourth grade here in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Beloit, like much of Wisconsin, is overwhelmingly white.

VANDYCK: And it was very clear that Marijuana Pepsi was not usual. It was not quite accepted, and it opened the doors for a lot of teasing and bullying and issues. And not just from the students themselves. I didn’t have teachers who bullied me, but I guess the name was just so interesting, they just couldn’t help themselves with the questions, and the opinions, and the statements, and dragging me to different classrooms to introduce me to other people to show who this little girl was who had this name. I didn’t see that as they were trying to bully me or put me down. Some of the questions were difficult, however, because they questioned my family. The type of family that I had, and what type of mother would name a child this.

Some of her teachers started calling her Mary.

VANDYCK: And I don’t think they did it from a place of, again, being hurtful towards me. I think they were trying to help me. They saw the way that I was getting on with the students and the hurtful things they were doing, and they wanted to make my life a little bit easier. And that worked right until I placed in the school spelling bee, and they wrote “Mary Jackson” on my certificate. And I went home, and my mother saw it and hit the roof. And came back to the school and cursed everybody out and said, “Do not ever call her Mary. Her name is Marijuana. Do not ever write her name differently.” And she told me, “You had better never answer to anything else other than Marijuana or I’m going to get to you.” And from that day on I was a lot more scared of her than I was of them.

When she was younger, back in Chicago, school had been a joy for Marijuana.

VANDYCK: I was a very smart student. I learned to read very early. I was picked to do everything. I had great relationships with the teachers and the students. Overnight, here I am at a school here, and not only are the teachers looking at me funny, the students are looking at me crazy. They are surrounding me on the playground, asking me questions, “Why are your pants so high?” You know, Michael Jackson in high-waters. And everything under the sun.

I felt like I didn’t belong there. I didn’t want to be there because clearly they didn’t want me there. “Something must be wrong with me.” I — you know, I’ve never said on an interview or I’ve never even shared it, ever. But sitting here, I remember thinking about committing suicide. I was nine. And I remember that like yesterday. And I was just hoping that everything would just go away. And then, I sat there and said, “Yeah right, fool. You do that, they’re going to talk about you even more.”

She says now there were a lot of reasons she was having such a hard time.

VANDYCK: Environmental factors, family issues, the relationship between the students at school, relationship with teachers. It was very difficult to wonder what was going to happen the next day. And it was just — it was a lot. I won’t go into too much detail. The last thing I want to do is make it sound like I didn’t have people who loved me and who didn’t take care of me. I did. But sometimes that’s just not enough. And in my case it wasn’t.

My home environment was just a little bit different between my— I have a very close-knit family, very loving family. I’ve got my mom and we’re— we’ve been raised with our grandmothers and aunties and there’s different types of things that happen in families. So you have that going on. And I go forward a few more years. I leave home when I’m 15. And before I left home, I was a failing student. I had all F’s, maybe a D in gym, and I had never, ever given any thought to what my life was going to be after anything.

I was literally living day-to-day, and I happened to be walking down the street to the store with my cousin, Mikal Cooks, and she was four years younger than me. And she was bragging about how she was going to be the first person in our family to go to college. And I remember stopping in my tracks because I said, “So what is she saying about me?”

And the next day, I went into the counselor’s office at the high school. And I ended up going into a credit-recovery program and from then on I believe, I may have gotten over three-point— and then from there another three-point-something, a little higher. I ended up getting the most-improved-student award at graduation and I was awarded an academic scholarship. And I elected to go to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

DUBNER: In retrospect, the treatment you got over your name, was that, do you think, just the straw that broke the camel’s back, that led you to becoming a straight-F student as a smart kid? Or do you think that the treatment you got over your name was a big contributing factor to that?

VANDYCK: That was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back. Again, it’s that sense of belonging. And, in my case, the lack thereof.

DUBNER: Were you, I guess, angry at your mom either for giving you the name that caused the trouble or for insisting that you continue using the name, even when other people were offering you an easy way out by calling you Mary?

VANDYCK: I’ve never been angry about my name. I have never felt that there was anything wrong with my name. Again, I didn’t even know that someone even believed that until I moved here. I’m looking at them like, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you messing with me?” All I wanted to do was read my books, fly under the radar, go to school, and go home.

DUBNER: I don’t mean to put emotions into your mind, but it’s hard for me to imagine you wouldn’t be resentful at your mom for insisting that you use the name that was causing you grief, though.

VANDYCK: I wasn’t resentful of it. Again, it’s like being named Stephen. If someone called you Steve and your mom says, “No, I want you to be Stephen.” That’s your name. I’m resentful of the people bringing me the grief about it. Because again, that’s my name. When I ask you what your name is, you tell me, it’s over. Why do I have to go through the fifth degree?

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Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck turned things around in high school and went on to college. Her first major was business.

VANDYCK: And that’s what I wanted to do. That’s always what I wanted to do.

But she also loved education, and she wound up becoming a schoolteacher. Even so, she kept her hand in business.

VANDYCK: That is correct. I owned and operated a small real-estate company and did real-estate investing. And I’ve actually been in real estate as long as I’ve been teaching.

DUBNER: Now, real-estate for-sale signs often include the name of the broker. I’m curious if you included your name and how that worked out?

VANDYCK: So they would steal it. I had phone calls from sellers, “Hey, Marijuana, someone stopped and snatched the sign. They’re driving off down the street, I’m trying to get the license plate.” They took the magnets off my car so many times, it was just ridiculous.

So Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck had clearly thought longer and harder than most people about the effects of a first name. But even this did not prepare her for what happened at her new school in Atlanta, and her fellow teacher’s angry response to seeing the class list.

VANDYCK: “My test scores are going to be S-H-I-T. I’m sick of this S-H-I-T.” I’m like, “Where are the test scores?’ And they’re like, “Marijuana. Look at their names. Look at their names.”

This kind of response, she would come to learn, was not so uncommon among white teachers.

DUBNER: To me it’s jarring to think that this kind of response would be prominent among educators. Because I guess we like to think that if there’s a class of people in the world who don’t prejudge and who believe in potential, it would be educators. And I’m curious whether this response affected your view of the field that you’d chosen.

VANDYCK: It definitely did. Not because it made me think I didn’t want to be an educator. It just reminded me that teachers — we’re not on a pedestal. We are human. We have the same preconceived judgments. When we see something that we deem unusual, we sometimes have the same thoughts.

What I was shocked and disheartened to see is that when we had those thoughts, it seemed that we stuck with those instead of saying, “Okay, I’m thinking this, let me just see. I don’t know this person. Let me just go on from there.” And that is the part that sticks with me.

The research that Steve Levitt did on black names, remember, found that those names didn’t seem to influence long-term economic outcomes, as indicated by things like neighborhood characteristics, or healthcare status, or years of education. But what that research didn’t explore was the day-to-day reality of living with a distinctively black name; it was a big, quantitative study. The research Vandyck began to work on, as a graduate student, was a much smaller, phenomenological study.

VANDYCK: A phenomenological study, meaning that I’m looking at the students’ lived experiences, their views, and told with their voice.

The whole point of such a study is to zoom in on each individual data point, with extensive group or one-on-one interviews. Vandyck was looking to speak with college students about their experiences in college but also in high school and even earlier. So she held an open call at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and chose ten students who fit her study criteria.

VANDYCK: My criteria was they had to be, of course, Black. They had to be what I deemed to be academically successful, as defined as they have met all the criteria for graduation from high school, acceptance into college, and they must be in good academic standing. They must have had name-related experiences throughout their academic history. And must be willing to talk about it. And they believed that they have a distinctly Black name.

DUBNER: When I see those criteria, I’m going to assume — and maybe I’m wrong, so tell me — that most of those experiences were negative, not positive. Am I wrong?

VANDYCK: There were positive experiences that I did highlight in the dissertation. In general, many of them were negative. However, I did not enter into the research study expecting that. As a researcher, you have to be very impartial. You have to make sure that your own personal feelings — and I especially had to be very careful of that. The last thing I ever want to do is be told that because my name is Marijuana that I had a bias. I was just very careful to stay away from that. I wanted to learn from the students’ experience and not put my own experiences on them.

The students in Vandyck’s study were named Mykaell—

VANDYCK: Kentrell—


VANDYCK: SteVont’e—


VANDYCK: Deyounte’. Shaleece.

Vandyck was hoping to answer a few fundamental questions.

VANDYCK: Drewshika. Number one, what are the educational experiences of students with distinctly black names? Basically, what are they going through on a day-to-day basis. And number two, what are the impacts of navigating educational environments as a student with a distinctly black name? So you’ve gone through this, what happens to you? And then lastly, what recommendations do they have for students with distinctly black names, for educators, and for other students who have to go through life with that same name?

So: what’d she learn?

VANDYCK: So when we look at research question number one, the education experiences of the students, the major one was disrespect. Disrespect, low behavior expectations, low academic expectations, and stereotypes. The disrespect was in two distinct ways. Disrespect was shown towards the students with their names but secondly towards the students personally as individuals.

They questioned what type of person the student was. What type of life they would have. They questioned what type of parent would name their child this. They took it a step further. They chose completely different names for the students even without the student’s consent or their family’s consent.

DUBNER: Can you give a for-instance of that ?

VANDYCK: Sure. Kentrell sounds easy to me. It sounds simple. But he talked about teachers always having the roughest time saying his name. And they would always ask him, “Can we call you Ken?” And he had a quote that I just loved: “You can say trepidation, but you can’t say Kentrell?”

DUBNER: Can you talk also about the low expectations? And again, I want to be clear — the criteria for the students in your study were that they were academically successful, correct?

VANDYCK: Correct. And that was purposeful. Sometimes when we are doing research on minority students, there’s this historical tendency to just look at all these mitigating factors of why. “Oh, it’s because of their low income, they’re this, they’re that.” And I wanted to make sure that no one could come back and say, well, the reasons it was this was because the student was just not academically successful. When you’re looking at the low expectations, the students felt like they were expected to be disruptive. Or to have discipline issues.

Vandyck then dug into how these experiences affected the students’ academic experience.

VANDYCK: It put a strain on the student-teacher relationship. Students had self-perception issues. If the student-teacher relationship is strong, that student can overcome, can learn, and can succeed. When that strain is put in from the very first time, the students automatically clam up and they talked about how they can’t give of themselves, and then the teacher sees that and then they think this student is low academically and treats them as such. And this is a vicious cycle, with the teacher not understanding what’s happening, and they’re attributing it to this and then the student just pulling back, their self-efficacy is ruined. And that’s where the self-perception comes in.

In many cases, it altered their future career choices. Several of these students, they were going on to be science majors and other STEM majors, and they changed. And they wanted to work with students and not be in a lab. They wanted to be teachers because they felt that they could help other students who are going through this, to love their names and not have to put up with this. One person, they said they wanted to do race-related studies because of his experiences with this.

You could imagine that the effects Vandyck is describing are not unique to students with distinctively black names. You could imagine students who belong to other minority groups being made to feel less capable than they are. And this jibes with other research that seeks to explain the relatively low rate of female STEM students. In Vandyck’s study, she did find that some students had had positive school experiences because of their names — a teacher using their name as a conversation starter, for instance, to talk about cultural backgrounds — but, she says, this rarely happened with white teachers.

VANDYCK: When we talk about the positive experiences, those came from African-American and minority teachers and faculty.

DUBNER: So here’s a question. When you have a distinctively African-American name or any other name that’s distinctive, it’s obviously something that someone else can latch onto, and maybe it’s even a little bit of a diversion from a more core issue of racism or prejudice or whatnot. Since your study didn’t include African-American kids who don’t have distinctively African-American names, how can you tell that in the case of the kids you study that it was their names that were the cause of this treatment, as opposed to simply being Black?

VANDYCK: That was one of the research questions. How do you know that this happened because of your name? And that’s where the stories came in. The conversations that started the issues with them in those classrooms were because of their name. When a participant talked about having to call in their parents, it was because of the name.

So not only did the instructor refuse to call the student by the name, they also told the student, “Oh, you’re not going to be here that long. It doesn’t matter. Just sit down.” And the student talked about being so frustrated because, while her parents were staying in there to talk with the teacher and the principal, the assistant principal gave the student a pass to go back to class, and spelled the name wrong. And the student said, “You spelled my name wrong.” And the assistant principal said, “It doesn’t matter. Just go back to class.” And the participant, she threw her hands up and said, “It does matter. That’s the whole reason we’re here. Because of the name.”

DUBNER: I guess, just continuing to play devil’s advocate, it could be that those teachers and administrators would have exhibited racist behavior toward a Black kid without the distinctive name. It’s just that there wouldn’t be such overt evidence of it, right?

VANDYCK: That is true. And that’s not a part of this study. The names are. And so when the student comes in for that first time, and they talked about what happened when they introduced themselves to the teacher. And when the conversation was, “Did anyone else get those questions?” The answer was no. “Did you have other Black students in your class.” “Yes.”

DUBNER: So your findings were really dramatic and interesting. I’m curious how they squared with your expectations coming in.

VANDYCK: I heard that a lot of them did experience what I experienced. Which was surprising to me. Because these students were so much younger than I was currently, and I thought that with the change over the years, and the types of names now, and all of the professional development around implicit bias, and race, and equity, and diversity, that things would be so much better for these students. But it’s not.

DUBNER: Okay, so let’s talk about, now, the “Here’s what we can do about it.” In the paper, you talk about recommendations from the students for other students and faculty and so on.

VANDYCK: Well, some of the recommendations that the students came up with: basically, to be culturally competent, to be respectful, to understand that just because a student has a name that an educator may not be familiar with, it does not mean that there is something wrong with that student or with their parents. It was acceptance. Acceptance of the students. Acceptance of their backgrounds. When everything is boiled down, ask a student how to say their names. They talked a lot about the teacher egos. How when teachers were corrected, how they copped an attitude about being told how to say the name. So when you talk about implications for leadership, again, it goes back to educators being self-reflecting, looking at their own personal biases that they have.

Think about when you hear a name, or you see something about a student, you don’t know them. But think about what it triggers in you, and ask yourself why it’s triggering that. And when it does trigger you, remind yourself, “Okay, I don’t know this person. I don’t know why this is being triggered. However, I’m going to make sure that I get to know them the way that they are.”

DUBNER: Let’s say I hear you talking about all this and I run a big firm or a government institution — let’s say I’m the president of the United States — and I say, even though you’re talking about “just” the names of one subset of people, I believe there’s probably a lot to be learned here about how we all have different biases and that we often don’t even see these biases. Do you have any advice more generally for people based on your research?

VANDYCK: It’s the same advice. You cannot judge someone by their name, by their race. It is individual. Studies show that when people are actually asked about their tendencies, whether racist or just about other groups, that they firmly believe that they are being fair and impartial. They have to bring that to the forefront. And have those conversations and put that in training. And make people aware that it happens.

DUBNER: So Fryer and Levitt do make the argument that distinctively African-American names did not affect long-term economic outcomes. So I am really curious to know whether you think a distinctively African-American name or, again, a distinctive name in some other category perhaps, is ultimately a penalty for lifelong economic and perhaps other outcomes.

VANDYCK: When you’re looking at these students that were in my study, let’s take Taliyah, for example. She is a biology major. She has two minors, a Spanish minor and a psychology minor. When she graduates, she is going to go on and perhaps get a Ph.D. in biology. Well, she is going to be deemed successful. And someone’s going to say, “Oh, she had a distinctly Black name but look, she’s successful.” But in the short term of her navigating her educational institutions to get there, look at what she had to go through. And many of the choices and changes that she has made, and many of the experiences that she’s had, they were impactful on her.

DUBNER: So you’re saying that success may come despite the distinctive name and the penalties of it, yes?

VANDYCK: And not even despite. Sometimes, in a small part, because of. Most people would go, “Well, there is no way that ‘Marijuana Pepsi’ had a long-term impact because of her name. Look at her, she’s Dr. Vandyck now.” But my goodness, I shared with you that I thought of killing myself at age 9. And there was much I didn’t share.

DUBNER: How do you think your life would be different now had your name been just Mary?

VANDYCK: I would have stayed in business. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, business-minded. I’ve always had students’ interests at heart, so at some point I still would have been some sort of an educator, even if I just went into schools and did some work as a business leader. But I think that’s where I would’ve changed. Because it did alter my career choices as well.

Vandyck has been working most recently at Beloit College, in Wisconsin; she’s been director of their Student Excellence and Leadership Program, which supports low-income, first-generation college students. The big reason she went into education, she says, and stuck with it, is because she wanted to change how students who look like her — or look like anyone else, or no one else — how those students will be received by the rest of the world.

VANDYCK: Yeah. And I’ve said many times, I cannot wait to become a teacher, because this is ridiculous. We have got to give students at least one teacher, where they can come in and be themselves. And have parents that can come in and have a conversation.

She remembers one particular incident with a student back when she was teaching elementary school.

VANDYCK: And I had a conference with his mom, and she cried throughout the whole conference and I could not understand it. And I am giving her tissue after tissue and I finally say, “Ma’am, why are you crying? He’s doing great!” “That’s just it. He has never had a good conference. These teachers have been kicking him out of school since he was in pre-k. I came in here expecting to hear everything I’ve always heard,” and this student was on honor roll. He was doing a fabulous job.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Daphne Chen and Harry Huggins. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Matt Hickey, Zack Lapinski, Greg Rippin, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck, director of the Beloit College Student Excellence and Leadership Program.
  • Steven Levitt, Freakonomics co-author and economist at the University of Chicago.