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Broken Vows Trip Up Minorities at UCSD ‘Boot Camp’ : Higher Education: Promise of economic security while rigorous program prepares them to compete proves too good to be true.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The offer seemed too good to be true for the diverse group of blacks and Latinos hungry for academic advancement:

An intensive one-year academic “boot camp” at UC San Diego to improve their math, reading and writing skills so they could then continue as regular students through a four-year undergraduate program--preferably with a science major--and graduate. Better yet, the university would provide full financing for at least the first year--$9,500 in grants as well as campus housing--so that students would not have to work and those who had jobs could quit them and spend full time on studies.

And, as the first year nears completion, many of the 16 students who started the program believe it was indeed oversold. Four dropped out and the 12 students who remain have lost a good deal of the excitement they began with last September, in large part because of broken financial promises and haphazard administration of its two special academic courses.

Nevertheless, many of the students believe they have benefited academically from the program, although it remains unclear whether their expectations for academic success will be fulfilled by the year of special preparation.

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The moving force behind the program, veteran UCSD biology professor Stanley Mills, resigned as director last month after angry complaints from students that money promised as grants in some cases became small loans, causing financial headaches that distracted from their rigorous math and writing assignments.

Although Mills designed the faculty-run experiment to have at least a three-year evaluation, there is no question that problems from the first year have complicated his original goal: a program not only to increase the small percentages of black and Latino students on campus but to have them better prepared to tackle different science majors and graduate in greater numbers.

“It is a good education for those who don’t have a chance other than to enter a junior college somewhere,” said Jose Cruz, 19, who plans to major in engineering. “But Mills made the program sound like a fantasy” when the students were recruited, “saying that everything would be taken care of. I think all the financial pressures have taken a real toll on us.”

Added 27-year-old Maurice Carlisle, recruited for the program after completing a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps: “There’s been an incredible amount of hassles and financial pressures, and I think most of us have decided that we simply had to be willing to suffer through this first year because we want a college education.”

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“We made mistakes,” Mills admitted last week, conceding that the student complaints contain a good deal of truth. “These students are not woolly-eyed lunatics. . . . I did misinterpret certain (financial) data, and we’ve had problems from just shaking down the program.”

But both Mills and Joseph Watson, who, as vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, funded the program this year with about $80,000, asked that criticisms of Mills’ management and his misstatements to students not overshadow the effort to try something different to help more minority students succeed at UCSD.

“We are testing an approach different from present programs,” Watson said. “We have doubts about our present programs,” which provide tutorial and other support for minority students admitted to regular undergraduate programs but which have been inadequate in improving minority retention rates and increasing grade averages.

Mills said he fears colleagues will interpret his resignation “as saying that the program failed. But, even though I have resigned, the program still exists, and I think it can still work.”

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The Computation and Language Skills program (CALS), designed by Mills and approved by the UCSD Academic Senate, calls for intensive courses in math and writing/reading, taught by graduate students or lecturers and supervised by tenured professors. Each course would involve daily instruction from two to three hours, substantial one-on-one assistance and a large dose of homework nightly. Mills based the concept on an intensive summer program he helped run for minority students from Lincoln and Morse high schools admitted to UCSD in the mid-1960s.

Mills recruited math professor Leonard Haff and English professor Charles Cooper, who has designed writing projects for the state Department of Education and San Diego city schools, to oversee the two course components.

Mills and Watson at first decided to target former military personnel in their planned recruitment of 20 students last summer for the first year, reasoning that persons with such background would have self-confidence and maturity levels useful in tackling a fast-paced, disciplined academic schedule.

But, because of the short amount of time given Marine Corps administrators at Camp Pendleton, the major point of contact, there were few Marines eligible for the program who would be leaving the service in time to begin studies in September, 1989.

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As a result, the two instructors selected for the classes were asked to beat the bushes for potential students, using contacts at community colleges and other agencies.

“We essentially played God,” said Robert Curtis, a UCSD graduate student in mathematics who taught the math course until he quit in December in anger over student hardships resulting from the financial complications. “We really had no standards other than finding students who seemed suitable. . . . most of them were enrolled on the spot after brief oral interviews with Mills.”

When first contacted by Mills, Luis Lopez had already begun his second week of study as a junior at San Diego State University, buoyed by a $1,400 grant and a $1,000 scholarship for being an outstanding Hispanic student transfer from a community college.

Lopez, along with three other persons, met with Mills “and, after just a little meeting of 10 minutes or so, he admitted all four of us right there. And then he began telling us about all the great things we would have financially--tuition, dorms and no need to work so we could study.”

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Although Lopez suspected he might be overqualified for the first year of remedial-type courses, he nevertheless took Mills’ advice to drop out of San Diego State immediately and enter UCSD. “I took his word, even though I never had anything in writing. I figured that I had everything paid for the first year and a guaranteed four years at a prestigious university like UCSD.”

But Lopez and the other students soon found out that, despite the promises from Mills, all students had to qualify for any financial aid through the regular application process. And, as such, income from the jobs they had quit at the urging of Mills or aid from parents they no longer lived with was considered in figuring out what they would eventually receive.

Not only did aid packages end up substantially less than what Mills had detailed, the money was delayed because of processing. One former Marine, married and with children, had his auto repossessed and dropped out of the program. Remaining students were forced to borrow money from friends and from Curtis. UCSD’s housing director arranged for meal tickets to be advanced to the students and found dormitory space, albeit in the university’s highest-priced graduate complex, a converted condominium, at $800 a month per double room.

“When I got stuck with a $4,000 loan, no grant, no money for food, I said, ‘Hey, minority students have had it hard enough without going through all of this,’ ” Lopez said.

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Given that the course work was basically too elementary for him, he left the program and, through the special efforts of UCSD Registrar Ronald Bowker, was able to re-enroll at San Diego State this spring despite not meeting application deadlines. But he lost both his $1,000 scholarship and $1,400 grant from SDSU, and still remains $1,300 in debt to UCSD.

Monica Lopez, the older sister of Jose, quit a well-paying job at Children’s Hospital, sold her car and left a UCSD preparatory program at City College. Subsequently, she has had to move several times to find housing she can afford given the small amount of aid provided her. Her cousin, Maria Borrayo, left the program, unable to support herself without a job.

“Why did I join? I was told by Mills that this was the ultimate program,” Monica Lopez said. “But, in retrospect, it isn’t that exceptional, unless you’re really someone who has blown a lot of (academic) chances before.”

Carlisle, the ex-Marine, ended up having to leave his wife and children with relatives in Ohio for the year. Kevin Earl, recruited from a job at the United States Homeless Mission in Southeast San Diego, said the bitterness of many students resulted “especially from a lack of money provided us during transition” to the campus.

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Student Phillip Harris said, “After being told that all our needs would be taken care of, to just come to school and study, we’d get back to the (dormitory) and there would be a three-day-to-pay-or-be-evicted notice. So you’d spend half a day trying to get that cleared up. There was a tremendous amount of stress.”

Bruce Jackson, a former Navy man, noted that many of the CALS students had never received loans before, and they worried incessantly about “owing other people money. . . . I mean they were really distraught.” As the oldest student, Jackson, 38, helped counsel other students to stick with the program despite his own inclination at times to quit.

Mills said last week that “I didn’t understand how (financial aid) was handed out.” Watson agreed with student complaints that the money was “both handed out quite late and that some things were said (to them) that were wrong.

“Yes, if they were misled, we have moral obligations to meet our stated commitments, but we can’t forgo the regular financial aid procedures. . . . I can’t order the financial aid office to do that.” Watson did point out that many students have had their financial aid packages revised this spring to include more grants and fewer loans.

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Mills and Watson believe the program will improve in its second year. Before Mills resigned, they already had recruited 14 students for next fall, including nine from the military, and say they have been careful to explain financial aid requirements.

Meanwhile, the academic success of CALS remains up in the air. Curtis, the former math instructor who has kept in contact with most of the students, fears that the math course is inadequate to prepare all the students for the rigorous UCSD calculus course required of all freshmen.

“I fear that some may get slaughtered,” Curtis said, partly because he believes the CALS course was unable to address the wide range of student preparation, where some needed basic algebra instruction at the beginning while others already new some trigonometry.

Haff, the math professor who oversees the course and who is now the overall program director, said the students “on average” are a motivated group, but, in terms of their chances next year, “I want to let the results speak for themselves. . . . Our hope is that they will be able to do the course.”

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English professor Cooper is confident that his literature instructor, Aida Mancillas, has improved both the skills level and self-confidence of the students in reading and writing.

“Not only has she done a wonderful job with the course, I believe she has provided the students with a lot of personal support and advice, and really has gone well beyond simply teaching the course well to be a key person in holding the program together,” Cooper said.

But both Cooper and Mancillas had differences with Mills over the content of the literature program, with Mills wanting more traditional grammar-based instruction. As a result, Cooper and Mancillas don’t know whether they will be part of CALS next year.

“I haven’t decided on that,” new director Haff said.

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Mancillas said that Mills and Haff dislike her agitation on the part of students, in particular by helping them draft several letters to Watson demanding that Mills be dismissed form the program. “In any other format, the university would welcome such initiative, but not in this case,” Mancillas said.

Despite the financial problems, most of the students look forward to continuing at UCSD next fall, and they feel vindicated in part by the resignation of Mills.

“I’d recommend it to others as long as they are aware of the financial aid limitations,” Harris said. “I’ve been exposed to a lot of new things, and the review of math and writing has been really helpful.”

Added Kevin Earl, who rooms with Jackson, “We’re as diverse a group as you could ever find, and the university has played on our decency. You always know that nothing comes for free, but it has been worth it academically.”

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