When word came that the Minority AIDS Project was in need of student volunteers, David Higgins had some doubts about helping out.
"I was pretty nervous at first. I didn't know that much about AIDS and I didn't know any gays or lesbians, but they needed volunteers and it seemed interesting," said Higgins, 18, who has worked part time with the project for more than a year.
"Once I learned more about the AIDS virus, I realized how much our ignorance hurts us," he said. He is spending weekends at favorite teen-age hangouts--shopping malls and swap meets--disseminating information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome and how to keep from getting it.
"I can relate to young people," said Higgins, a June graduate of Locke High School in Watts who will enter UCLA as a freshman later this month. "Their first reaction is they don't want to talk about it, but I can break through that."
Higgins said the work made him a more understanding person.
"I've gotten to know some of the AIDS patients at the (project offices), and I realize they are ordinary people," he said.
Community service is a high priority for Higgins, who also has done volunteer work through the People Who Care Youth Center near his home in Watts and through El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where his father is pastor.
Until school starts, he holds a paid, full-time summer job with Continental Cablevision.
The eldest of seven children, Higgins began volunteer work at 12, at the urging of his father and his mother, a preschool teacher.
"My parents have always pushed me to put something back into the community. It became a habit I can't break," he said.
In addition, he said, they taught him the value of doing well in school.
"Both of my parents went to college after they already were married and had a family to support. They have impressed on me the importance of getting a good education--and how much harder it is once you get beyond your teen years.
"They have made me see that my abilities are a gift from God, so I put forth my best effort at school," Higgins said.
He has also held down part-time jobs, from typing reports for an insurance firm to helping at a towing company to working as a custodian, while keeping up his grades and finding time for other activities.
At Locke, where he maintained a 3.6 grade-point average, he was a member of the school's Academic Decathlon team, played varsity basketball and performed such extra duties as helping in the attendance office. Last spring he was honored with the school's Student Service Award. At church, he added youth services counseling and choir to his activities.
At UCLA, Higgins plans to study business, computer science or engineering. He said he intends to concentrate solely on his studies at first, to be sure he gets off to a good start. But once settled in school, he hopes to resume his practice of volunteer service combined with paid part-time work to supplement his scholarship.
While a few of his classmates set their sights on Princeton, Stanford or other prestigious private universities, Higgins said UCLA was always his first choice.
His mother jokes that when he was a baby just learning to talk, his babbling sounded like "Bruin, Bruin, Bruin."
"Maybe she's right, because I've wanted to go there for as long as I can remember," Higgins said. "The day I got my acceptance letter--it was March 2--that's the day all my studying paid off."