When it was time for Woodrow Curry to decide where to go to university, he had several choices. An African American with good high school grades and test scores, he was accepted by UC Berkeley, among other schools.
But Berkeley is not where he ended up. Spurning one of the nation's premier public universities, he picked UC Riverside. Although Riverside is sometimes scorned as the lowliest of UC campuses, it offered Curry something that Berkeley did not: a place where he felt welcome.
"I liked the atmosphere," said Curry, 22, who plans to go to law school after he graduates next year. "I liked the black community on campus. I knew that UC Riverside had the most African American students of any UC and that they had a lot of programs geared toward helping African Americans succeed."
UC Riverside, sometimes viewed as a dumping ground for students who can't get into other UC campuses, has become the university of choice for many black and Latino students, whose numbers remain disproportionately low at other UC campuses.
While campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley struggle to attract students from underrepresented minority groups, UC Riverside increasingly enjoys a reputation as one of the most ethnically diverse research universities in the nation.
"Maybe they should be looking at what UCR is doing right in attracting minorities," said Jayna Brown, an assistant professor of ethnic studies there.
Since 1996, state law has forbidden using race in college admissions. But at Riverside, administrators say they have worked hard over the last decade to reach out to eligible minority applicants, giving financial aid packages to promising students such as Curry, and creating race-based programs to assist minority students once they enroll.
UC Riverside Chancellor France A. Cordova, hailed as the first Latina chancellor in the UC system, notes that more than half the students say Riverside was their first or second choice.
"We are not UC rejects," says Samantha Wilson, 19, a white student who chose Riverside because of its diversity. "We are UC on the rise."
On the campus of 17,000 students, the university's success in achieving a diverse student body is obvious. At midday, the Commons is filled with young people of many ethnic backgrounds, some sitting in mixed groups, some with others of the same heritage.
Nearby are offices set up by the university to serve targeted groups. There are places for black students, Chicano students, Asian Pacific students, Native American students. There is a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center and a Women's Resource Center. Similar programs exist at many colleges, but the effect is palpable.
"It's the face of California," said Ellen Wartella, UC Riverside executive vice chancellor and provost. "It's not the campus of last resort. It's the place that minority students feel comfortable coming to because we are diverse."
This year, the UC Riverside undergraduate student body is 7.1% African American, 43% Asian American, 25.1% Latino and Chicano, and 18.7% white.
In 2005 -- the last year for which system-wide figures are available -- UC student bodies overall were 3.1% African American, 39.9% Asian American, 14.3% Latino and Chicano, and 35.8% white.
Riverside has the highest percentage of African Americans of any of the 10 UC campuses and the highest percentage of Latinos of any UC campus except the small, new Merced campus, which has slightly more.
By law, UC guarantees a spot for every California high school student who graduates in the top 12.5% statewide.
But there has long been a pecking order among the campuses, with Berkeley and UCLA at the top and Riverside near the bottom.
Berkeley and UCLA typically draw students from the top 3% of the state's high school graduates, a pool that is more white and Asian American than California's population as a whole. Riverside draws a more diversified student body, but accepts nearly every eligible student who applies.
Some critics accuse the UC system of racial bias in its admission policies and charge that it funnels minority students to Riverside. Some question why other UC campuses don't look more like Riverside.
"It's separate, but certainly not equal," said Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. "It's the resegregation of the UC system."
UC officials deny that minority students are intentionally steered to any particular campus. The problem starts much earlier, they say, with unequal educational opportunities in California's public schools.
"I want to be careful not to blame the high schools, but not every student has the same access to high-quality education," said Susan Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions for the UC system.
Among California high school graduates, Wilbur notes, 31% of Asian Americans are eligible for UC, while African American and Latino students have an eligibility rate of 6%. White students fall in the middle, with an eligibility rate of 16.2%.
Moreover, competition for Berkeley and UCLA is great. Last year UCLA received more applications than any other university in the country.
One advantage Riverside has in attracting underrepresented minorities is that it draws many of its applicants from the Riverside area, which has a large black and Latino population.
The university reaches out to the community, dispatching students and alumni to high school campuses and local groups. "We make recruiters out of our students," says Alfredo Figueroa, assistant dean of students.
The university also runs summer programs to give high school students a chance to experience life on campus.
With many students arriving unprepared for university-level math or English, even though they are UC-eligible, Riverside provides remedial courses -- which it calls "bridge classes" -- for more than 30% of incoming freshmen.
Such programs can be found at most public and private universities, but UC Riverside is building on its reputation for diversity. It's the inverse of what's happening elsewhere. Since news of UCLA's small incoming black freshman class became public last summer -- about 100 were admitted -- some black community leaders and high school students have questioned whether African Americans should apply to the Westwood campus.
But Riverside was a good fit for Daniel Polk, 21, a third-year Latino student from Moreno Valley who was accepted at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. He is happy with his choice. He notes that undergrads get personal attention from their professors and can participate in research projects -- rare at big schools like UCLA and Berkeley, which are nearly twice the size of Riverside.
"It's gone beyond my expectation," he said. "I'm getting everything I wanted out of my college career."
But some students say the university could do more to bring students of various ethnic groups together. There is too much emphasis on racial identity and not enough integration of the student body, they say. Campus clubs too often recruit solely along ethnic lines.
"Everyone is very compartmentalized," says Amanda Moreno, 20, a third-year student who is half Mexican and half Italian. "It's never about integration. It's about making sure we maintain our identity."
Other students complain that disciplines such as the sciences are not racially mixed. Gretchen Stanton, an African American chemistry major, says she sees few blacks in her classes.
"While it looks very diverse, people are in their own groups a lot of the time," she says.
Another gap in diversifying the campus is the faculty. At 7.9%, Riverside ranked sixth among the nine undergraduate UC campuses in attracting members of underrepresented minorities.
Curry, the student who turned down Berkeley for the Inland Empire, said he first visited the Riverside campus during a summer program for high school students and it shaped his idea of what he wanted in a university. Ken Simons, the head of African Student Programs, actively recruited him.
Although Curry was accepted at Berkeley, he never toured the campus or heard from university recruiters. Already inclined to stay close to home, he couldn't say no to UC Riverside when it offered to pay his tuition in full.
He hopes to get into law school at UCLA or Georgetown and believes his exposure to different ethnic groups and viewpoints at Riverside has helped prepare him for a career in international or corporate law.
He has since visited Berkeley and concluded that he made the right choice.
"It was nice," he said. "It reminded me more of an East Coast school, with larger buildings and older structures. But I wasn't too impressed. It seemed like it had everything we had. It was just bigger and older."
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Minorities at UC Riverside
The ethnic and racial diversity of the
undergraduate student body at UC Riverside increased over the last
decade despite the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which banned
racial preferences in university admissions. A look at UC Riverside
compared with the state population:
UC Riverside, 1996 | Asian: 39.2% | White:30.4% | Latino:19.5% | Black:5.7% | Others: 5.2%
UC Riverside, 2006 | Asian:43.0% | White:18.7% | Latino:25.1% | Black: 7.1% | Others:6.1%
California, 2005* | Asian: 12.2% | White: 43.3% | Latino: 35.5% | Black: 5.9% | Others 3.1%
*Most recent statistics available.
Sources: UC Riverside, Census Bureau