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Returning the Favor : New President Says Community College Changed Life : WEST LOS ANGELES

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new president of West Los Angeles College knows that community colleges change lives. Look at hers.

As Evelyn C. Wong, 53, explains, her extended Chinese-American family saw no reason why a girl should bother with higher education. As a result, Wong took a business course in high school, instead of a college-preparatory one. “I was going to be a secretary and work until I got married and was taken care of for the rest of my life,” she recalled with a laugh.

But a few weeks before Wong graduated from high school, she decided that she would like to go to college after all. Her parents, who had moved to Los Angeles from their native China, had little formal education, but they encouraged her to pursue her dream. Because money was an issue, Wong went to Los Angeles City College, where she received her associate of arts degree in accounting. Next came UCLA and a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in business administration and social sciences. Then a master’s in education from UCLA. Finally, when she was in her 40s, she went back to school and earned a doctorate from Pepperdine.

Despite Wong’s academic success, her relatives were unconvinced. When she was 20, she remembers, one of her aunts chided her mother: “We told you you made a mistake when you let her go to college. Now you’ve got an old maid on your hands!” In fact, Wong was happily married for 25 years, until her husband’s death from cancer in 1986.

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Wong, who is winningly modest, attributes much of her success to luck, including being born in the right place with the right public educational opportunities. “I’m here doing what I’m doing today because I was fortunate enough to be born in Los Angeles and went through the system,” she says. Being president of West, as the Culver City campus is known, is an exhilarating opportunity “to give back.”

Wong will have to deal with a number of what administrators like to call challenges. West is the Westside community college nobody knows, the one overshadowed by the larger, more popular Santa Monica College. Once threatened with closure because of lack of enrollment, the school grew explosively during the tenure of former president Linda Thor, who left in 1990 to take a position with the Phoenix community college system. But funding has not kept up with growth, and West is even more strapped than some of the eight other campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District, the nation’s largest.

Wong supporters on campus, who include Arthur Danner, a music instructor who heads the Academic Senate, think she is especially well qualified for her new job because of her more than 30 years experience in the district. She has been a student, teacher and administrator in the system, for the last nine years in leadership roles at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.

Danner points out that the district is unique in many ways, in part because of its “tremendous heterogeneity,” and that Wong understands the district as few others do. “She knows her way around and has a great record,” Danner says. “That’s what we need right now. I think she’s going to give us some very strong leadership.”

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Asked what her vision is for West, Wong prefaces her answer by saying that she believes the college at large should be involved in setting goals and priorities.

“Nothing happens because of one person alone,” she says, emphasizing that change is most effective when there is widespread “buy-in” on the part of those affected. But she has her priorities. One is to continue to fight for a real campus for West. At present, the school has no gym, no major auditorium, no student center. A long-awaited building to house the school’s aerospace program and a gymnasium are in the official pipeline and should be completed within a few years. But other buildings may never be built unless non-state funding can be found.

Wong is especially concerned about the proposed student center. As she points out, such non-academic buildings are not a high priority for the state. And yet the campus desperately needs a place where students can gather between classes--someplace other than the collection of vending machines that is the only current alternative. Wong hopes a generous individual or some other private donor can be found. As she puts it, “We’re looking to an angel.”

Wong says she would also like to see West reach out to new groups of students. In recent years, the school has been most successful in serving women, including older women. Its student body is about 60% female, the highest percentage in the district. It has also demonstrated its appeal to minorities. Almost 50% of the students are black, 10% Latino and 10% Asian.

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Wong would like to see the school bring even more black and Latino males into the educational mainstream. She would also like to see West increase its number of full-time, as opposed to part-time, students, in part, because full-timers make campus facilities and services more cost-effective.

Wong takes obvious delight in her new position. From her first taste of community-college life, she has wanted to be part of the system, and now she is enjoying one of its top jobs. Her only regret, she says, is that her late husband is not here to share her pleasure. On a shelf in her office are a pair of chipped Chinese soapstone carvings her husband rescued from his mother’s trash bin. They are a way to keep him near, Wong says.

Wong says she hopes to be at West for a long time. Her elderly parents still live in the area, and she has no plans to relocate. Right now, she is settling into her campus office, trying to transform the wood-paneled sanctuary into something more, frankly, feminine. A Georgia O’Keeffe poster was one of her first additions.

Among her other virtues, Wong is a charmer. When she left Trade-Tech, her buddies there gave her a big box of chocolates, to be opened in case she ever feels “lonely, homesick, beaten upon or maligned.” Trade-Tech was unhappy to lose her, district insiders say. As to her new colleagues at West, the early word is, “We got lucky.”

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