Robert Fisher was shooting baskets in a church gym in the Gentilly section of New Orleans last summer when a third-grader approached him.
"Where are you from?" the boy asked.
"Tennessee," said Fisher, of Clarksville.
"But you look like you're from New Orleans," the boy said.
Fisher, 19, laughed. He doesn't normally think about the color of his own skin, what it means and why it matters -- not overtly, at least. But nine months after that mission trip to New Orleans, Fisher received a phone call from Washington, D.C.
The staff at the Institute for Responsible Citizenship invited him to its summer leadership program for black men.
After accepting the invitation at the beginning of March, Fisher reflected on that conversation last summer, and on the importance of race.
"Those kids, we had a rapport because there were similarities in how we looked," said Fisher, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science sophomore who last week became Student Government Association president.
"As much as you want to get past [skin color], at times I think there is a benefit in that, too. They realize, 'Well, there's a guy who looks just like me. And if he can do it, then I can do it.'"
William Keyes started the Institute for Responsible Citizenship in 2001 after a 35-year career working in the White House, on Capitol Hill and as a consultant. He wanted to chip away at the "crisis of underachievement" among this country's black men.
At UTC, fewer than 10 percent of students last fall were black males, Keyes said, and that's common on campuses across the country.
So each year the institute's staff picks 12 students. The group is elite. After going through the institution, students attend graduate schools and law schools and earn prestigious awards. Rakim Brooks, class of 2008, became a Rhodes Scholar.
Once selected, students spend two summers in Washington, interning in places that fit their career goals on weekdays and attending a class on economic and constitutional principles two nights a week and on Saturday mornings.
"This is not summer camp," Keyes said. "It's a really rigorous program."
Fisher will be the fifth student from a Tennessee university attending the institute and the second from UTC. In the fall of 2011, UTC Honors Program Assistant Director Debbie Bell introduced DeMarcus Pegues, class of 2009, to Fisher, then a freshman.
Fisher doesn't yet know with whom he will intern this summer, but he knows he will get to meet some interesting people.
Each summer, the 12 students spend days with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Keyes told him the men will talk about anything: their own education, their career decisions, baseball. Anything. All you have to do is talk.
But, Fisher wonders, "What will I say? What will I ask? ... I'm typically not speechless."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.