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"As far back as I can remember, I've always been curious about storms," says Aaron Pratt. When he was a small boy, his mother compared him to Sesame Street's Count von Count because they both got so excited whenever there was thunder and lightning.
His attention was focused further by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The fifth-grade boy watched in fascination as Hugo devastated the islands of St. Croix and Puerto Rico and then took aim at the beaches near his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
None of Pratt's friends shared his interest as he was growing up, and there were no clubs or organizations where he could develop his weather-watching hobby. But by his freshman year in high school, he had already decided that he would go to college and major in meteorology.
Just planning to attend college was something of a triumph. Neither of his parents was college educated, and Pratt—the third of 11 brothers and sisters—is the only one in his generation who has continued his education past high school.
However, he says his parents always expected him to go on. "I was always considered 'the smart one.' While my parents couldn't tell me about college from personal experience, that didn't stop them from pushing me in that direction," he says. "They pushed for all of us to go as far as we could educationally. Their attitude was, if that's what you want to do, there's no reason why you can't.
"I'd love for all my brothers and sisters to go to college," Pratt adds. "It's a great growth opportunity. You get a chance to become your own person and fully flesh out your identity. I would strongly urge anyone who has any thoughts about it to just go ahead and do it."
‘While my parents couldn't tell me about college from personal experience, that didn't stop them from pushing me in that direction.’
Pratt enrolled in North Carolina State University in 1998, where he met Wandra Hill, the assistant dean for student services. "There was no doubt that he would go far," Hill says. "All he needed was someone telling him he could do it." Hill took on this role, Pratt says, becoming almost a second mother to him.
Pratt doesn't consider himself a math whiz, and he was somewhat taken aback at the amount of math that meteorology requires. Immersing himself in the subject, he even tutored elementary-school children in math at 7:00 on Saturday mornings. "I think that motivated him to do even better—the kids asking him, Why should I be like you, Mr. Aaron?" says Hill. Pratt graduated in 2002 with a B.S. in meteorology.
That fall he entered Pennsylvania State University. Pratt planned to get a Ph.D., but "I was getting burned out from school, kind of losing my motivation and focus," he says. "I thought it would be better to just go for a master's degree, and then at least I wouldn't leave empty handed." He finished his master's work in 2004 and came home to look for a job. But his mother, a devout Christian, urged him to complete his education. "She said, 'Don't take the easy way out. Just trust in God, and he will direct your path.'" Penn State faculty member Gregory Jenkins also encouraged him to continue.
Sure enough, in the fall of 2005 Pratt enrolled at Howard University. "Right before I left my mom said, 'I always knew you would go back; you just needed to find that out for yourself.' "
In the meantime, Jenkins had taken a job as head of the graduate program in atmospheric science at Howard, and Pratt began working with him on cyclogenesis. "He's a different breed of kid than you see on campus," Jenkins says. "He's not arrogant. I think he's going to be a great researcher. He works hard at problems, he thinks about them, he reflects on what he knows. He always thinks there's more for him to learn." Pratt expects to complete his degree in 2009.
His mother died of cancer in December 2006. Pratt says, "With her gone, it's not just my dream to get a Ph.D., but it was hers too. Now it's more than just an academic achievement."