Minority Students : Alienation and Failure in Academia

Times Staff Writer

The night he left East Los Angeles for Harvard, George Sanchez recalled, his parents took him to the local church to be blessed by the priest.

"They had no way of knowing what they were sending me off to. I didn't know." Within the next few hours, Sanchez took his first plane ride, to Boston, and his first taxi, to the ivy-covered walls of Cambridge. There, also for the first time, he would come to realize he is a Latino.

"I knew I had Mexican parents," said Sanchez, 28, who had attended St. Paul's High School, a predominantly Anglo Catholic school in Santa Fe Springs. "I thought of myself as an all-American kid in some ways.

"All of a sudden I got to Harvard and realized what All-American meant and it wasn't me."

Others Concur

The distance from the nation's barrios and ghettos to the rumpled sophistication of its elite universities can be far greater than the mileage traveled--as other, higher profile cases have pointed out.

Jose Luis Razo, a straight-A scholar-athlete from Servite High School, a private school in Anaheim, said he never fit in during his two years at Harvard. "No one understood me," said Razo, 20, a Mexican immigrant whose wrist carries the tattoo of a homeboy, a local. He is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 12 charged with several armed robberies allegedly committed in Los Angeles and Orange counties during his college breaks.

Similarly, Edmund E. Perry, an honors graduate from Phillips Exeter Academy who had received a full scholarship to Stanford University, seemed to have turned education into a ticket out of Harlem and poverty. But his friends said he struggled with perceived racism at the famous Eastern prep school. Two years ago, Perry, then 17, was shot and killed during what police say was an attempt to mug a New York detective.

Pull of Two Worlds

These extreme cases, baffling to outsiders, may be explained by highly individual problems rooted in home life or emotional makeup. Yet the two young men--both bright and ambitious--also felt the pull of two worlds and the alienation of belonging to neither. It is a "sink or swim" feeling that many minority students--even the most successful--say they share.

"It's incredibly unfair. They admit them and expect them to muddle on through," said Catherine J. Kissee-Sandoval, 26, a Yale graduate from Los Angeles and the first Chicana Rhodes Scholar, who wrote a 1986 study on Latinos in the Ivy League.

She said even academic deficiencies are easier to overcome than homesickness and alienation. "After the first or second years and you learn to write papers and analyze, that part becomes easier. . . . The problems are more difficult when you're dealing with personal and social factors relating to issues of race and culture and ethnicity," she said.

Michele Denise DeCouteau, a black Rhodes Scholar-elect from UC Berkeley, said, "Recruitment is half the work. To finish the commitment, they (university administrators) should concentrate on retention."

"(Black) students who come here are prepared. They have the qualifications to do the work," said DeCouteau, an engineering student. "However, social, cultural and ethnic issues can sort of chip away at your self-esteem. Very subtle psychological factors can interfere with how you perceive your ability to do your schoolwork and how others perceive your ability to do your schoolwork."

DeCouteau's father is a conductor with the San Francisco Ballet and her mother is an educational psychologist. She had no financial worries, but DeCouteau said she shared common experiences with more disadvantaged minorities and relied heavily on two university programs, the Minority Engineering Program and the Professional Development Program for minorities.

"Minority students are something of an island. It's important to know you're not the only one. It's tremendous knowing there are people you can go to in terms of a psychological boost, to get back your perspective and keep you from falling into a hole of despair and self doubt."

Student Demands

Improved minority support programs, more hiring of black faculty members and a grievance board to investigate allegations of racism were among demands this fall of UC Berkeley's African Students Assn. Black students criticized university administrators for not responding to their special problems.

Lack of a sense of community, as well as academic problems, accounted for alarming dropout rates for black students, a UC Berkeley task force reported last year. At Berkeley, 73% of black and Hispanic students drop out, contrasted with 35% for all students combined.

Mia Barber, a junior, said she was ready to transfer to Howard University, a predominantly black institution in Washington, as a result of racial incidents last spring at a co-op residence. Friends in the African Students Assn. encouraged her to stay, she said.

Abe Ruelas, project director of Casa Joaquin Murrieta, a private residential program for Latino students attending UC Berkeley, said poor Latinos feel guilty for pursuing academics rather than earning money for the family. Some students have sent some of their financial aid money home to their struggling families, he said.

"Even here at Cal, a progressive school, a lot of people try to remain committed to the (old) community in the process of going through school," said Armando Mejia, a UC Berkeley student and Nicaraguan immigrant from Echo Park. "Once you achieve, you achieve on selfish grounds. You start to forget where you come from. Many become disillusioned. They say, 'What is the point? What am I doing? I'm not doing anything for my people. My people are still jobless.'

"Some say, 'I'll just go back.' "

Graduation Statistics

Of students entering the nation's two- and four-year colleges intending to obtain a bachelor's degree in 1971, only 40% of the Latino students had graduated by 1980 compared to 51% of the black students and 56% of the Anglo students, said Alexander Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute and author of "Minorities in American Higher Education."

(National retention rates for Asians are not available, Astin said, and he did not include Asians in his study because they are not an under-represented minority. For example, 16% of the students in the University of California system are Asian, more than double their percentage of the nation's general population.)

At UCLA, 36% of black and Latino freshmen entering in 1979 had graduated within five years contrasted with 59% of Anglos and 60% of Asians, according to Paula Lutomirsky, director of information management at UCLA.

Retention rates are improving for all students at UCLA, she said, but the improvement for under-represented groups in recent years has been dramatic, particularly in the first year, she said.

"In the fall of '79, we lost 26% of the under-represented freshmen after the first year. Now, we're only losing 13%," she said. She attributed the change to better prepared students and the benefits of UCLA's Academic Advancement Program, which offers tutoring and counseling.

Despite such gains, shifting demographics make the retention problem crucial, said Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee for review of the state's master plan for higher education. "By the year 2000 there will be no majority and by the year 2030, the majority will be from the Latino population," he said.

"Latinos are dropping out of high school at a 50% rate and not finishing college at a further diminished rate. It's a formula for disaster" in both human and economic costs, he said.

Contributing Factors

Contributing to the problem are fewer financial grants from the federal government, lackluster commitment to recruiting minority students, faculty and staff, and parents who are uninvolved in their children's education, minority advocates said.

Meanwhile, college recruitment officers said they are competing for what they see as a limited number of qualified minority high school graduates. "We all want to boost our minority numbers," said Jane Gutman, director of the Western Regional Office of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the eight Ivy League schools.

"It's one thing to have the numbers, to say, 'Oh, I have a certain amount of minority students,' but another to say I have enough support to get them through, correct counseling and to have minority faculty members," said Sanchez, the son of Mexican immigrants who graduated from both Harvard and Stanford and will teach history at Princeton next fall.

"Undergraduate students from working-class backgrounds, predominantly Mexican-American backgrounds, see people on campus they most relate to are not the faculty and staff, but gardeners and kitchen help which are highly represented," Sanchez said.

Others said they have been discouraged by racial stereotyping and racism.

Nearly all Chicano students have a story about a first-year English composition professor who doubts they have written the paper they turned in, said Alfred Ramirez, who grew up in East Los Angeles, graduated from Columbia College and now manages Inroads Los Angeles, a career training and development organization for minorities in business and technology. Simply asking the question can make a student well up with discouragement and disillusionment, he said.

"Often what you get is that the majority of the faculty and other majority students expect all minorities are there on waivers of standards. They expect (minorities) are all 'affirmative action' admissions and do not expect them to do well. There is that Pygmalion effect of prophecy fulfillment," said Sarah Melendez of the American Council on Education.

Affirmative Action

Programs to identify and admit under-represented minorities began in earnest in 1968 after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The influx of minorities admitted to predominantly white institutions through affirmative action programs peaked in 1976, but since then the numbers of black college students have been declining and the numbers of Latinos and American Indians, though increasing, have not kept pace with their growth in the general population, according to the American Council on Education.

In the 1978 Bakke decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down special hiring and admissions quotas to reach parity, but allowed admissions criteria that used race and ethnic background as a decisive factor for otherwise qualified students. Except for athletes, admission requirements are not waived, a council spokesman said. Even though students admitted under flexible criteria to the Ivy League may have SAT scores as low at 1,000, they are not considered unqualified, he said.

But flexible admissions have backfired for some who believe they resulted in feelings of tokenism and self-doubt--even among minorities with high scores and middle-class backgrounds.

A 1980 study by a Harvard student-faculty staff committee on race relations reported that 69% of black students agreed that admissions policies that are thought to favor minorities generally often create doubt about their academic ability.

Nearly every black student feels rage at one time or another over perceived racism or discrimination by the institution, said Francis Terrell, a black psychology professor at North Texas State University. One of his black students wanted to hit a professor who he believed had given him a lower grade because of racial prejudice, Terrell said.

Uncontrolled Rage

Terrell said he used relaxation techniques to calm the student. But when some angry students visit his office "they are in such a rage there's not really much you can do. A lot of students cannot be appeased. And they will quit school."

A high achiever with a 3.8 grade point average and participant in extracurricular activities, Lucky Gutierrez, 23, a graduate of the predominantly Latino Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, said he had been heavily courted by colleges, particularly by student recruiters from the Ivy League. He chose Stanford.

Like Sanchez, he said he immediately became painfully aware of his ethnicity. The first quarter, a classmate from the East Coast called him a "spic." Campus police followed and questioned him and another Latino student when they drove together on campus.

When classmates spent winter vacations skiing in Aspen, he went home to East Los Angeles.

Gutierrez, whose grandparents came from Mexico and who does not speak Spanish, suddenly became an activist. At the end of his sophomore year, he was voted the Most Likely to Lead a Third World Revolution. At the end of his junior year, he took a year off to sort out questions of identity and belonging.

This year, Stanford students citing "institutional racism and underlying prejudice" have pushed for better conditions for campus minorities. Last spring, in response to student demands, Stanford redesigned its required Western Culture class to incorporate more contributions from Third World countries and women.

Students on the university's Committee of Minority Affairs also say they want an increase in minority undergraduate and graduate admissions as well as more minority professors and administrators.

But controversy has dogged three ethnic theme dormitories--where 50% of the residents are black, Mexican-American or Asian. The dorms sponsor ethnic-oriented educational, social and cultural programs and aim to "let people know we care about them and respond to their needs and we want them to become part of the general student body," said Michael L. Jackson, associate dean of students for campus affairs. Critics, however, argue that the houses only foster segregation.

Future Effects

Stanford is now 35% minority, Jackson said. "What does that mean 30 years from now? Who will be the majority, who will be the minority? We don't know."

As a private institution, Stanford counts on its alumni for support and new ideas, he said. "If that base is 35% minority, you damn well better make sure they have a good experience and believe in Stanford if you want them to give back and contribute to the institution."

Stanford's overall attrition rate is about 10%, with minorities only slightly higher, he said.

At UC Berkeley, racism "is more subtle now," said student Barber. "Black people don't have dogs sicked on them. But it's things that are said, professors' actions, things that happen in your living situation that affect you mentally, as opposed to physically."

During the last two years, UC Berkeley officials have identified black retention as a serious problem, and agreed to form a grievance board for allegations of racism. Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman has stated that improved opportunities for minority students is his highest priority this year.

In one private program at UC Berkeley, Latino alumni have sponsored a residential program which aims to strengthen Chicano identity as well as shore up academic and social skills.

Backers of Casa Joaquin Murrieta hope to develop leaders from selected low-income students with computer and study skills workshops, stress management seminars and a "supportive cultural environment." In the living room is a mural depicting the Chicano struggle. Richards are called Ricardos, Joes are called Joses.

Basis for Success

"By denying culture, you lose some of your best basis for success. That's what makes you who you are," said Ruelas, who directs the 40-student co-ed house. "I don't buy into having to abandon (ethnic) culture to succeed in American society."

Residents are allowed to stay two years. With that beginning, 90% graduate compared with 50% of the Latinos at UC Berkeley, Ruelas said.

"When you're in a situation that forces you to deny who you are, you have to wear who you are in defiance. It leads to violence. Whereas when you are accepted as you are, there's no problem."

The goal of assimilating into the mainstream of society for student minorities is a throwback to "the dark ages," he said.

Like most college administrators, Harvard officials said they believe they are morally obligated to offer minority students support. But--as at Stanford--they debate whether the forms of support foster integration or segregation.

At Harvard, students are required to live on campus in houses where employees are available to offer advice and guidance. A Bureau of Study Counsel also offers a range of services from academic support to personal counseling for all students.

Minority students are encouraged to use counseling centers but no special counseling is provided because "we don't want to start with the assumption that all minorities need it," said L. Fred Jewett, dean of students at Harvard College.

When he was a Harvard student, Sanchez lobbied for Chicano studies and a minority cultural center. He said he ran into "a fairly traditional attitude that students should come and work things out. . . . It partly comes from an attitude: Minority students are here to enrich the rest of the campus."

Alternative Project

Officials rejected student demands for the cultural center in favor of a Foundation on Race Relations that was to present minority culture as a whole, he said. "It's a fine idea, but it doesn't replace the need for a minority cultural center, which can give added support and provide a nucleus for interaction," he said.

"Harvard fears a certain amount of separatism," he said. At the same time, he said, "It's almost impossible to go to a place like Harvard and be a separatist. Why go to Harvard--the heart of Anglo-American power?"

Harvard in particular is known as an effective recruiter--cited as a model for minority admissions by the Supreme Court in the Bakke decision.

Like many colleges, Harvard does not necessarily waive standards for disadvantaged minorities but rather uses race and ethnic background (as well as special talents, alumni interests and achievements) as tipping factors for otherwise qualified students, officials said.

At least 75% of Harvard's under-represented minority students graduate, compared to an overall graduation rate "in the low to mid-90%," Jewett said.

Last fall, a new assistant dean for minority affairs, a Puerto Rican, started work at Harvard. "Clearly, we're trying to make up for the fact there are not as many (minority) people on the staff as we would like," Jewett said. But the decision to create the position was not made in reaction to the Razo case, he said.

Harvard officials wonder "whether there are things we might have done which would have prevented" Jose Razo's troubles, Jewett said. "We're not absolutely sure how much Harvard contributed or didn't contribute to it. . . . We haven't found readily identifiable cause-and-effect factors."

Razo may have sought counseling for academic problems, but his problem was not academic, he said. Razo had not developed the sort of personal relationships that most students need to ease their transition, Jewett said.

Drops Out of School

Razo has voluntarily withdrawn from Harvard, and a final decision on whether he may return will be made later, Jewett said. Razo, who is in the Orange County Jail, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"The thing we haven't done is indict a whole program of admissions and a whole group of people because of a single incident."

Jewett fears that observers will conclude that minority students with disadvantaged backgrounds cannot succeed at college. In fact at Harvard, "Hundreds of minority students have come here over the years and done well," Jewett said. "Many of them have had transition problems and have gone on to become successful doctors, lawyers and teachers.

"In making admissions decisions, we try to pick people that have the strength, resiliency and growth potential and we try hard with our counseling and support resources to get through the transition period and complete their studies."

Harvard takes no risk in admitting students with credentials at the edge of acceptability, he said. "The only person taking the risk is the student," Jewett said. "The institution is not particularly shaken if an individual doesn't succeed. . . . We have to be careful that they're not taking too great a risk."

Those who have succeeded without elaborate institutional support say they managed to balance the values of academia, the mainstream society, with those of their community and their own families.

"It takes character," said Rhodes Scholar Kissee-Sandoval. "Sometimes when I listen to my uncle who works at Sinclair Paints, I realize there are so many types of wisdom other than academic wisdom."

"Your life has to represent a bridge," Sanchez said. "Part of me is always remaining connected to my parents. The other part to the larger society. In a small way, my presence can change that world."

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