The last diploma had been handed out in the Mitchell Room, under the watchful oils of the august men who had led the College of Physicians over its 225 years, when Edward Sawyer Cooper made for the door.
Gabby Smith, 19, took off running.
"Dr. Cooper!" she called.
The retired cardiologist turned on the white marble steps and smiled, standing still as the young woman wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
"We are so proud of you," he said, and told her she was going to a good place, New York City, where one of his daughters is a pediatrician and researcher. She could be helpful, he said. Then he warned her of the elephant trail.
It’s an old folktale. An Indochinese planter wants to build his house on the path that elephants take to the watering hole. The view is too beautiful for the planter to resist. But when a storm comes, the elephants stampede and trample everything he’d worked for.
The point, Cooper said, is simple: "Be careful about the company you keep and the stuff you get into. You can’t get out of them sometimes."
Pearls like these were the dream of Nicholas and Athena Karabots four years ago, when the local philanthropists agreed to fund a class of junior fellows at the college, extending a hand to underserved high schoolers from Philadelphia.
They wanted to introduce promising students to careers in health care — as doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators — and to provide mentors to light the way. All 24 members of the first class of Karabots Fellows are headed for college next year, although one is delaying because she’s pregnant.
Cooper is an emeritus medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the first black president of the American Heart Association. He worked with Gabby, who wants to be a cardiologist, too. In addition to help with science and strategic thinking, Cooper has given the girl inspiration to aim high.
"To have that from the person who has already gotten to where I want to be," she says, "is star-striking."
Gabrielle Smith was a ninth grader at Cardinal Dougherty High School when a science teacher, Teresa Hooten, suggested she check out the college’s new program. Gabby’s mother, Marsha Hurst, drove her to the interview on South 22d Street, sat next to her, but said nothing, allowing her daughter to make her own mark.
Hurst had never gone to college but wanted much for her only child, whom she’d raised alone. Hurst had paid her daughter’s private school tuition by taking care of elderly people in their homes. She’s since switched to looking after young children.
Gabby still remembers how her mother used to read to her, talk about the night sky, and teach her to look for the Big Dipper, Rigel, and Betelgeuse.
"I don’t think I did anything special," recalls Hurst, 40. "I just did my job as a parent. She always was a very curious child. Very confident. I always encouraged her to do her best. Anything she wanted to achieve would be attainable for her."
For three years of Saturdays, and weekday afternoons in summer, Gabby took a bus and a train from her Cedarbrook house to the college. There, she was mentored by staff and distinguished visitors, who led field trips to Drexel, where students learned to take a patient’s pulse and blood pressure, and to Rittenhouse Square, where they studied the relationship between sewage systems and public health.
For one project, the Karabots Kids were handed small, bleached skulls and instructed to research what animals they came from. They wound up correcting two of the college’s classifications.
Gabby finished last week at Girls High School, where she completed her requirements for the rigorous International Baccalaureate degree. "Truly delightful," says assistant principal Dale Matthes, "a spark of a person." Gabby had a choice of Barnard or Smith. She chose Barnard, which is picking up all of her expenses.
She learned during Wednesday’s ceremony that she’ll have an extra $1,000 to ease the transition — a surprise gift to all graduates from patron Nicholas Karabots, who cautioned, "It’s not meant for beer and all the other things."
After a two-week break, Gabby begins a summer program at Barnard. She says she’s a little nervous to think that everyone around her will be so accomplished. She knows she’s been given a rare opportunity. She plans to be mindful of how she got this far. She credits her mother, her mentors, faith, and history.
"When you remember how others paved your way, you should work harder, because they worked hard for you."