A voice for diversity at UCLA

Times Staff Writer

It didn't take long for freshman D'Juan Farmer to realize he stood out at UCLA.

The 18-year-old pre-med student from Compton has been asked at least 20 times if he is an athlete. Each time, Farmer politely says no. He is the only black student on the eighth floor of his dorm and often the only black student in the lunchroom or the lecture hall.

UCLA announced in June that it would have 96 black freshmen this year -- 20 of them athletes -- out of a class of 4,800. Not since 1973 have there been so few. Farmer and a few others were admitted on appeal, bumping the number to about 100. But word had spread about the "infamous 96," as Farmer calls it, and that number stuck. It became the black freshman badge.

Farmer had planned to focus solely on his studies his first year. But he found himself defending his new campus, challenging critics who said UCLA did not want black applicants.

Now, Farmer is balancing academics with a burgeoning activism. He and other black students worry that unwelcoming stereotypes about the campus will lead to a bigger drop in the number of black freshmen next year, despite the school's newly revamped admissions process. People, he said, are skeptical of UCLA.

"I'm trying to change their minds."

A recent Wednesday spent with Farmer demonstrated the challenges that he and UCLA face in changing those minds.

6:30 a.m.

As his roommates slept, Farmer ironed his jeans, fed his fish and then left his dorm wearing a black T-shirt with big white letters: "Got Black Students?"

Farmer helped prepare for the 9 a.m. arrival of 50 African American high school students, who would spend a day at UCLA touring the campus. The event was set up by UCLA's Vice Provost Initiative for Pre-College Scholars.

He broke away to attend his 9 a.m. calculus lecture but hustled back to meet the 17-year-old he was paired with for the day, Alyssia Torres, a black and Latina senior at Pasadena High School. She knew of the 96 black freshmen, and it disheartened her. Still, she was considering applying.

Torres had barely met Farmer before he led her into a throng of students chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Prop. 209 has got to go!"

It was a protest against the 1996 ballot measure that barred the state's public colleges from considering race in employment or admissions. Spurred by UCLA's falling diversity numbers, hundreds of students marched to a building at 10:30 a.m., where the University of California regents were meeting.

"Most people at UCLA don't really like the UC regents," Farmer told Torres, who smiled uncomfortably, looking as if she felt out of place.

"Raise up your fists!" a student shouted into a bullhorn. "Let everyone know, this is what diversity looks like."

"We are what diversity looks like!" Farmer and others chorused as he pumped his fist.

Torres joined the chorus, softly.

Farmer watched the time. He had to get to chemistry by noon. He would get his midterm results that day, and he was nervous.

A student launched into a speech: "An assassin's bullet cannot shatter a dream!"

"Yeah!" Farmer shouted. "We love Martin Luther King!"

Then he motioned to Torres. Time to go. They left echoes of the protest behind. Torres finally had a moment to ask questions. She had many on her mind.

Last May

Farmer graduated from the California Academy of Math and Science, a magnet school on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. He earned straight A's in his last two years. Except for UCLA, he received acceptance letters from all UC campuses, including Berkeley. But Farmer believed an undergraduate degree from UCLA would set him on a path to its medical school.

UCLA had admitted 244 blacks for the freshman class, and 96 had agreed to enroll, according to school officials. After a grueling appeal process, Farmer learned that he was admitted. He rejoiced. Church members and family bragged, mindful that few blacks got into UCLA. Farmer would be the first in his family to attend a university.

He felt an odd sense of pride, though. Farmer thought of his black classmates who also had applied to UCLA. There were 16 in a class of 140. All of them, he said, high achievers. One got in to Princeton, others to UC Berkeley and USC. But no others to UCLA.

"It wasn't that their grades were bad or their personal statements were bad," Farmer said later. "It had to be something beyond that."

11:45 a.m.

Farmer and Torres hurried toward the chemistry class at Young Hall, a building that had been chalked with the words "demand diversity."

"What financial aid do you have right now?" Torres asked.

"I have zero."

His parents' annual income is $97,000. Torres could relate. "Mine's like $70,000," she said. "They think I have money, and I don't."

Farmer told her he had nine private scholarships, enough for tuition but not a dorm. At the beginning of the quarter, Farmer rode the bus to UCLA from his parents' home in Compton, a two-hour trip. He later secured a $10,000 loan for housing.

Torres had a shot at many scholarships, Farmer said, because she was multiracial.

Could she really get in to UCLA? Torres asked. Did she have the grades? Did she have enough extracurricular activities? What kind of SAT score would she need? Would her ethnic background really help?

Farmer encouraged her.

"That's why we have this holistic approach now," he told her, referring to UCLA's decision to view students' achievements in the context of their personal experiences. The "holistic" admissions, similar to a process used by UC Berkeley, are to begin with next fall's freshman class.

UCLA officials have said they must abide by Proposition 209 but still hope they can boost African American enrollment.

"Hopefully," Farmer said, "this year there's going to be more minorities getting in."

Early September

Farmer started the quarter thinking he would meet black students in his lectures. Each had more than 300 students.

"But the problem," he recalled, "was there weren't any black people to sit next to."

That was when it struck him.

"I really felt the isolation."

Farmer had been on campus a few days before he found other black students, during a picnic for freshmen and transfers. Actually, they found him first.

Ella Franklin, 18, of Oakland had grabbed three other black students and told them, "Let's go find black people." She spotted Farmer. "There's one!" They introduced themselves.

"There's not a lot of us," Franklin said to him, "We've got to stick together."

Why is this so important?

Knowing other black students feels comforting, the students say. It's an unspoken familiarity they did not have with nonblacks, even when they got along with them just fine. This familiarity includes both the good, such as sharing joint pride in black culture, and the bad, such as knowing what it's like to be stereotyped as a gang member or to be stopped by a cop.

Franklin, a former basketball player and track star, had chosen UCLA over Carleton College in Minnesota. Carleton offered Franklin financial aid and a slot on the track team. But the thought of being one of a few black people in a small Midwest town turned her off. She gave up playing college sports. Then she learned of the 96 freshmen and felt cheated. "I really didn't want to come."

Her only relief came from a six-week Freshman and Transfer Summer Program, which housed minority students in a dorm and gave them college courses and tutoring. It helped her bond with other black students. It was a program Farmer had missed.

He ran into Franklin again in a class on interracial relations, dealing with issues such as racism and immigration. Franklin introduced him to other black students from the summer program. They decided to do something about the declining number of blacks on campus.

Farmer also joined the Afrikan Student Union. He attended meetings and rallies in addition to his three classes and six hours of tutoring a week.

It barely left time for dorm life. He shares a room with two white roommates, older transfer students. Though not best friends, they get along, sharing the flat-screen TV and mini-fridge, sometimes eating together in the cafeteria.

In time, Farmer began attending "Black Wednesday," a tradition on Bruin Walk, where UCLA's African American students ate, talked and listened to music.

Farmer chatted with other freshmen, including 18-year-old Krystle Evans from Crenshaw High School. When she moved in to her dorm, a student asked if she was the granddaughter of the late Mayor Tom Bradley, a UCLA alumnus.

"I guess she thought I had to be related to someone famous to be at UCLA," she said.

Had she known about the 96, Evans said, she would have chosen UC Berkeley instead. "Black Wednesday," Evans said, "is the only day I get to see more than two black people."

12:50 p.m.

At the end of Farmer's chemistry class, the professor showed a grading scale for the midterm on an overhead projector.

"The average is 79%," he announced. "Here's the distribution. So, well done."

After class, students scrambled outside to retrieve their exams from teaching assistants. In the confusion, Farmer forgot about Torres, who waited patiently nearby.

"One person at a time!" a teaching assistant shouted.

Farmer grabbed his exam.

"Not good," he muttered. "I did badly."

He got an 87%. Better than average but devastating for Farmer. He hadn't received a B since his second year of high school.

But he did not have time to dwell on it. He had to walk Torres to a meeting with the rest of the touring black high school students, before she headed back to Pasadena.

Once there, Farmer mulled over his midterm, partly listening to the conversation. Terry Flennaugh, 23, a black doctoral student, greeted the visitors.

"After being here today," he said, "how many people are interested in coming to UCLA?"

Half of the group raised hands. To those who did not, Flennaugh asked, "What are some things about UCLA that just ain't doing it for you?"

Students shifted and whispered but no one spoke up.

"Nobody?"

A girl raised her hand. "When we walk around, there's not a lot of black people."

"Yeah!" someone shouted.

"That's a big problem," Flennaugh said. "The reality is, it's a struggle."

"It's plain," said someone else, "like that white piece of paper."

"You're getting the wrong idea," a UCLA student interjected. She said that if they wanted to be around black people, historically black colleges, such as Howard University, were ideal. But she urged them not to give up on UCLA.

Some ignored her. They had already made up their minds. Farmer stayed quiet, engrossed in the midterm exam.

The session ended after a talk on holistic admissions and how to apply. Farmer exchanged contact information with Torres. She hugged him and said she would keep in touch. After her adventurous day on campus, and despite her peers' qualms, Torres said she would apply to UCLA.

Farmer wished her luck, then rushed to his job at the Vice Provost Initiative for Pre-College Scholars, then to a tutor for help with an essay, then to a counselor to discuss his midterm.

At 6:30 p.m., he volunteered at a phone bank, calling black high school seniors to talk up UCLA.

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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