After ‘Compton Cookout’ scandal, UCSD forges a more positive association with the city

High school students in Compton were upset in February when they heard that a group of UC San Diego students had mocked their hometown by holding a “Compton Cookout” party and inviting guests to come as “ghetto chicks” and gangsters.

“We weren’t going to let them have the power to use our name. We weren’t going to let it slide,” recalled Compton High School senior Ernesto Villasenor, who will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York in the fall.

Villasenor and other Compton High students sent an impassioned letter expressing their anger about the incident to UC San Diego, where it was read aloud by a Compton graduate at a campus protest. “This causes us to question how the attitudes of racism and mockery are perpetuated and condoned by a public university,” the students wrote.

The letter launched a dialogue between very different worlds: the prestigious beachside university where blacks and Latinos make up about 15% of the student body, and the urban high school where last year 74% of students were Latino and 25% were black, and more than two-thirds were eligible for subsidized lunches.

From this tension, an academic alliance — and a measure of understanding — are emerging.

UC officials say they are trying to arrange scholarship funds to bring as many as 20 Compton High students to San Diego to attend the university’s three-week summer program for teenagers. In addition, UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography plans to work with Compton High science teachers to develop special classes for subsequent summers and the regular school year, with UC faculty expected to visit Compton and Compton students expected to tour Scripps labs. Both sides hope to create a pipeline of Compton students to UC San Diego.

“The names of Compton and UCSD have been linked by this horrible issue. So we’ve been given an opportunity to take a negative and make a positive,” said Scripps Director Tony Haymet. Some financial and planning details remain to be worked out, but he said he is optimistic those will be solved.

An Australian-born physical chemist, Haymet has driven up to Compton twice in recent weeks to meet with students and faculty at the high school, once bringing along Subway sandwiches for the teachers. At first the Compton participants were wary, concerned that Haymet and UC were looking only to ease the bad publicity sparked by the Feb. 15 party and subsequent racially-charged incidents. But students say he is now seen as genuinely interested in boosting the number of minority students in the sciences at UC San Diego.

A number of Compton High students say they want to attend the summer program and hope one day to enroll full time at UC San Diego. Among them, junior Sofia Pereira said she wants to counter the impression that Compton teens are all gangbangers.

“I would like to represent us and say, ‘Hey, Compton does have these people you may be describing but it’s not made mainly of those people,’ ” she said.

Anthony Pittman, also a junior, said he plans to apply to UC San Diego, partly to help raise the number of African American students on the campus. “The Compton Cookout shouldn’t be something that has to define us the rest of our lives,” he said.

The controversial off-campus party and other incidents at the San Diego campus led to high-level apologies from university leaders, along with efforts to recruit more minority students without violating the state’s ban on affirmative action.

Not everyone in Compton, however, is eager to embrace the UC school.

Omar Bravo, a junior, said he still feels insulted and unwanted. “I don’t want to go to a university where I don’t feel safe,” he said.

The new partnership between the schools was forged with the help of a UCSD doctoral student with Compton roots and a Compton High teacher who is passionate about his students’ being given a fair shake.

Michael Navarro, a Ph.D. candidate in biological oceanography from Long Beach, spent time in Compton as a youngster visiting relatives and later taught part time at a Compton elementary school. “For me, Compton means family, it means tradition,” he said.

Navarro urged Haymet and others at Scripps to visit the high school and joined them for the first trip there. He said he wanted Compton teens to know “that the idiots who did the Compton Cookout are not representative of all the students at UCSD.”

At Compton High, meanwhile, English and philosophy teacher Anthony Berryman helped organize a student group in the wake of the UC San Diego controversy. Named “CATCH17" (Compton Alliance To Confront Hate, and 17 for the age of most of its members), it brought African American and Latino students together in a common cause and triggered tough discussions about racial conflicts on their own campus, said Berryman.

“I don’t want to call the Compton Cookout a blessing, but it was a conduit to allow us to address these things which were nearly impossible for kids of different backgrounds in Compton to talk about,” said Berryman. In February, he and several other Compton High teachers attended the protest rally at UC San Diego.

The walls of Berryman’s classroom are decorated with posters of Einstein, colleges, movies and rock groups. And on a plaque near the front door is an embossed copy of the letter the students sent to UC San Diego.

No matter how many participate in the UC summer program, Berryman said he was delighted that Compton students who felt angry and insulted a few months ago can now talk about the issues with such a prominent scientist as Haymet.

“The idea that they are actively working to change the reputation of our city and our school gives them pride and satisfaction,” said Berryman. “And for me, that’s the best thing that comes out of this Compton Cookout business.”

At summer’s end, Haymet said he wants to hold a barbecue for all involved and, politically incorrect though it may be, call it the real Compton Cookout. He said he wants Compton students to know that this will be more than a one-time shot. “We are in this for the long haul,” he told them.