They were almost giddy as their opinions on euthanasia, flag-burning, freedom of speech and the merits of foreign aid versus the hungry and homeless ricocheted off the walls of a UC Irvine dormitory.
Like arrows in the hands of beginning archers, the ideas flew in all directions, seldom hitting the mark. But then, it was only Day 2 of a rigorous 10-day program that aims to create a cadre of ethnically diverse critical thinkers and future leaders dedicated to curing social ills.
"If a person has Alzheimer's (disease), you can't just kill them because they're a pain," declared 17-year-old Marshalette Ramsey of Fountain Valley, one of 48 high school students from Orange and Los Angeles counties who gave up part of their summer to be at UCI this week.
As talk in their group of 10 students and a team leader shifted to the growing number of infirm, poor and homeless whose needs go unmet, Berthe Duarte proposed that foreign aid dollars be spent instead on the needy in the United States.
"It seems like the money we give for foreign aid is never paid back," said the senior from John Glenn High in Norwalk. "If we don't take care of our own people first, how can we take care of others?"
Christopher Huber's blue eyes gleamed with excitement as he took the internationalist side, defending foreign aid as a stabilizing, beneficial influence in a world rife with political, social and economic tensions. It was a natural for the 16-year-old Huntington Beach senior who is in Edison High's model United Nations program and who hopes one day to become a U.S. ambassador.
Such point-counterpoint is at the heart of UCI's Knowledge and Social Responsibility (KSR) workshop, which is believed to be the only university-sponsored project in the nation designed to bridge ethnic barriers, to develop new leaders and to train young minds to question all assumptions in the best Socratic tradition.
The seeds of the program, now in its sixth year, were sown in a talk between Manuel N. Gomez, UCI assistant vice chancellor for affirmative action and educational programs, and Harlan Anderson, head of the National Conference on Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in Orange County.
Lamenting the dearth of visionary leaders, especially minorities, Anderson said they concluded: "Let's have a program that's not just about raising (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores. Let's have a program that looks at how to make the community better."
And so it has, if past graduates are any indication.
Two young women finished the summer program of 1989 and returned to Burbank High School, where they started a campus club that raised $12,000 worth of cash and donations for a local homeless relief agency.
A 1987 KSR graduate went on to start a chapter of the Nobel Peace-Prize winning organization Amnesty International at Irvine High School. Irvine High students have continued the tradition begun by Carolina Miranda of holding a candlelight vigil for political prisoners each Christmas season.
"KSR makes it cool to be a budding leader, and you're encouraged to have a vision of the future," said Anderson, whose NCCJ chapter has co-sponsored the outreach program to the tune of $20,000 each year since 1985.
"It's the most popular program our chapter participates in and the one that our members most want to see continue," Anderson said. "I think it's the best value you could get for the dollar spent. . . . Intercultural understanding happens every single minute here."
The program, which ends Wednesday, is offered free to about 50 students recruited from Orange and Los Angeles counties. They are selected on the bases of their leadership abilities and their ethnic and economic backgrounds, all with an eye to having the broadest social mix possible. This year, about 80% of the students are from Orange County.
Dubbed a "boot camp of the mind," the work begins almost from the moment students hit campus.
A "working breakfast" begins each day at 7:15, followed by a group session laying out the day's plan. Each morning and evening there are keynote speakers, who have ranged from futurist author T.A. Heppenheimer and Central American policy expert E. Bradford Burns to Orange County Register editorial writer K.E. Grubs and Los Angeles Times national correspondent Robert Scheer, an adjunct professor at UCI.
After each lecture, the students usually meet in teams of 10 and continue discussion on issues such as feminism, social responsibility, undocumented workers, housing discrimination, poverty and global conflict. All are encouraged to speak their minds yet be respectful of the conflicting opinions of others.
Next comes library research for debate topics that have been assigned at the beginning of the program on such controversial issues as affirmative action, flag burning and abortion.
Lunch is followed by three hours of history and social science workshops, which are followed by team meetings, dinner, the evening lecture, and more team meetings, in which the spirited debates grow sharper each day.
Then there is required time for writing in personal journals, and all are urged to contribute articles and poetry to a daily newsletter compiled by team leader Jenny Doh, a UCI senior who is serving as student representative on the University of California Board of Regents.
"I want these kids to think critically, to be curious," said Frank Marmolejo, who is teaching the daily history workshop for the fifth consecutive summer.
"Within three or four days, it happens," said Marmolejo, a history professor and chairman of the Irvine Valley College humanities department. "They start off shy, and all of sudden they are bathed in support. They start speaking out."
Doh, 23, said the students seem to blossom with the encouragement.
"It's not every day that young people get treated like their opinions count," she said. "You can see them listening to their peers and getting that 'cool wall' down. Here they don't feel like a nerd or a geek for talking about intellectual issues."
Mater Dei High School graduate Charles Tilley, an alumnus of the first KSR program in 1985, said it changed his life.
"I overcame my shyness through the program," said the 20-year-old Cal State Fullerton political science major. "The other thing I learned . . . is the Angst a lot of minority students have just being in Orange County and trying to succeed--pressures I would never experience."
Miranda, who launched the Amnesty International chapter at Irvine High School in 1987, said the pace is exhausting.
"This program manages to make you aware of so many different problems in corners of the world that you hadn't stopped to think about," said Miranda, now 18, who will be a sophomore at Smith College in Massachusetts.
"It was very challenging. . . . After 10 days, I went home and went to bed. I think everyone else did too."
Some people, even some students, assume that the program is liberal in its orientation, in part because of its stated goal of creating activists.
That is not the case, organizers say. Students are encouraged to question every assumption and examine all facets of issues.
"We try to dispel the concept that one person can't do anything," Anderson said. "The program is about leadership and the idea that the individual can make a difference. . . . They are treated as if they're going to be our next congressmen and -women, our next business leaders, our next President."
Noemi Renteria, 17, a senior at John Glenn High in Norwalk, said the message she got from the beginning was: "Don't be a follower."
Debra Zygielbaum of La Verne came to the program with the idea that she would learn how to further her crusade to save the environment.
At Bonita High School, she helped found SAVE (Students Against Violation of Our Earth), a 20-member campus organization that raised $2,000 to buy 40 acres of Costa Rican rain forest to protect it from loggers.
"I realize now that with all the problems of racism, homelessness and everything, that you can't correct the environment until you correct that," said the 16-year-old who has a 4.15 grade-point average entering her senior year. "If people don't get along, how are they going to work together to save the planet?"
As the program moved into high gear this week, director Gerardo Mouet said it is thrilling to watch the 1990 group be instilled with the same curiosity and thirst for knowledge as those who have gone before.
"Students tell me 'I learned more in these 10 days than in all the years before,' " said Mouet, assistant director of UCI's Educational Opportunity Program. "You see, it's not about grades. It's about learning for its own sake."