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Law School’s Minorities Get Cultural Help : Education: Students who were flunking out have come to excel thanks to the Focus Program at Western State University College of Law.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like every first-year student at Western State University College of Law, Dana Chong had to overcome all the academic rigors that come with wanting to be a lawyer.

But along with the extensive reading and writing that were required, the 25-year-old Korean immigrant also had to conquer cultural obstacles that many of her classmates did not.

“My main concern was the language. I had to read things 10 times to understand them,” said Chong, who lives in Anaheim. “I also didn’t know that people could sue other people for so many things. Everything here is done with a written contract. Coming from a culture that’s not so rigid, I couldn’t understand it. It was bizarre.”

Not until she joined a unique minority-retention program at Western State aimed at overcoming cultural barriers did Chong start to understand the legal system she was learning about. With this boost she successfully finished the dreaded first year of law school.

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Dozens of minority students like Chong, many of whom were flunking out of school, have also excelled under the Focus Program. Western State officials say the program will enhance the school’s reputation as a haven for “non-traditional” law students.

Unlike other law schools, Western State caters to students who are generally older, working toward a career change or lacking the grades or test scores to get into American Bar Assn.-accredited schools, which Western State is not.

“We’re not an elitist school,” said Western State President John C. Monks. “We take in anybody that we feel has a reasonably good chance to make it through law school and become a lawyer.”

Western State is one of the biggest law schools in the nation, with more than 2,500 students. Although the school in not ABA-accredited, it is accredited by the state and the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, meaning its graduates are eligible to take the California Bar exam and practice law in California.

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Monks said the Focus Program, which was implemented last year, has become an integral part of the school’s mission to accommodate those who normally would not have an opportunity to attend law school.

“We want to help minorities compete on an equal basis here,” he said, noting that certain cultural differences often prevent that.

For Andrew Barrera, founder of the program, those differences caused academic disqualification from school during his first year.

“Being the oldest son and the only one in my family to have gone to college, I was expected to assume a lot of responsibilities in the family. I was sort of a surrogate parent,” said the 35-year-old Yorba Linda man.

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“A lot of Latino families don’t really understand what’s going on,” he said. “Law school is hard enough without these extra burdens being put on you.”

Barrera managed to petition the school and gain readmission, but his experience inspired him to help others who found themselves in similar circumstances. Once back in school, he talked to students, faculty members and administrators and got them to form the program.

“I knew that there were a lot of students like me who were smart enough to go through law school but were struggling with cultural barriers,” he said.

Barrera, now in his final year of law school, also said that many Latino students are hampered because they feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help in courses that they’re having trouble with.

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In addition, many minority students “don’t have the support group” that a great deal of their classmates have, he said. “A lot of us are first generation and don’t have a father or an uncle who’s a lawyer.”

Further complicating their situation, some minorities say, is the fact that English is often a second language for them. Several Asian students at Western State said they seldom ask questions or talk in class because of their accents.

“Other students sometimes laugh when we talk,” Chong said. “Nobody wants to be laughed at.”

Although the program is targeted for minorities, any student can join it and attend the workshops and seminars. Professors donate their time to provide study sessions, which usually cover topics ranging from how to take tests to the ins and outs of torts.

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“It’s a very worthwhile program,” said Samuel Frizell, director of the legal writing program at the school, who has taught several Focus seminars.

“It helps the students in two ways. It gives them that extra help they need in language skills and it gives them a comfort zone,” he said. “Their success or failure has little to do with them being minorities. It’s really a program for the disadvantaged, especially where English is a second language.”

In addition to the faculty and administration support, members of the legal community are also becoming involved in the school’s minority-retention effort.

Alfredo Amezcua, an alumnus of Western State and president of the Mexican American Bar Assn. of Orange County, said the program is a positive step in assuring that more minorities become attorneys.

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“The legal profession needs to attract more minorities into its ranks, especially here in Orange County, where the population is so diverse,” he said. “We hope the Focus Program will help us (lawyers) develop a partnership with the university, the students and the faculty.”

Because the program was implemented less than a year ago, administrators have no data on how successful it has been.

Barrera, however, said an informal survey of students suggests that seminars and workshops have greatly helped many of the school’s minorities, who numbered about 44% of the entering student body last semester at Western State’s Fullerton campus. The school also has campuses in Irvine and San Diego, where minorities make up 20.5% and 17.1% of the student populations, respectively.

“Even if this program helps only a few people, it’s worth it,” Barrera said. “Something had to be done to help minority students compete on an equal level. Hopefully this will stop minorities from falling through the cracks of the system.”

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