Friday, August 08, 2008

Students recruit minorities to UC in ways institution can't

This is great work that needs to be recognized, especially seeing how so much effort is being put in areas (the Central Valley) that rarely ever see college recruiters.


By Lisa M. Krieger | Mercury News

California law bans the state's public universities from recruiting students based on race.

But it can't stop student volunteers.

Call it the outsourcing of affirmative action. Stepping into jobs made off-limits to university officials by Proposition 209 - the 1996 California ballot proposition that prohibited public schools from targeting students based on race, sex, or ethnicity - students are reaching back into their own communities to boost diversity on campus.

"We feel an obligation to help open the door to allow for more of our brothers and sisters to enter," said Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu, a Tongan student at the University of California-Berkeley who is a member of the student group Pacific Islanders Higher Education Recruitment Program. "It is a labor of love, rooted in creating social change."

The passage of Proposition 209 hit UC-Berkeley's racial and ethnic communities hard. The number of incoming freshmen from under-represented minorities groups - African-American, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander - shrank by half.

The numbers are just now beginning to recover. But the campus is still far from reflecting the state's diversity. Although about 47 percent of public high school graduates in California are members of underrepresented minorities, they make up just 25 percent of UC's incoming freshman class. At UC-Berkeley, the system's most elite campus, there are only 15.7 percent.

So while many of her Berkeley classmates were working summer jobs, doing internships, traveling, or just relaxing at the beach, Tavae Samuelu spent July on campus organizing a conference to motivate the next wave of Pacific Island scholars.

Working eight hours a day for weeks, without pay, the 20-year-old Long Beach native telephoned, e-mailed, raised money and organized the logistics necessary to host hundreds of youngsters at Berkeley. Of the more than 200,000 students in the UC system, only 300 are Pacific Islander.


In the audience, Woodside High School senior Sekope Kaufusi welcomed the help.

"It's inspiring," said Kaufusi, an East Palo Altan of Tongan ancestry. "They explain what it takes to come to college - especially here."

UC officials can still offer programs to educationally disadvantaged students. But programs must be inclusive, rather than racially targeted. Race and ethnicity can't be a factor in deciding whom to admit, either.

"Universities can reach out. But they have to reach out to everyone," said Sharon Browne, an attorney with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which supported passage of Proposition 209.

It's a fundamental change that forced universities to radically rethink how to connect with minority students.

The California State Universities - which are academically and financially more accessible, and therefore more diverse - have faced less of a challenge.

Institutional efforts

The 10-campus University of California system faced a bigger hurdle. To comply with the law, UC has shifted its focus to academic preparation.

Rather than race-specific outreach, "we're focusing on students with low income and disadvantaged backgrounds," said Jamie Vargas, of the UC-Santa Cruz-based Education Partnership Center.

UC partners with 50 struggling high schools, most of them populated by minority students.

Minority students admire UC's goal: Pull up the whole system. But it can take too long to fulfill, they say.

"Last year there were 10 counties from California that did not send a single student to Berkeley. Ten!" said Vanessa Cuevas, 22, the daughter of agricultural workers in Sutter County. "UC is supposed to be representative, but it's not."

Almost immediately after the passage of Proposition 209, students at all campuses demanded from UC the autonomy to do student-initiated outreach. Overseen by the University of California Student Association, the campuses have race-specific groups that control their own budgets and projects.

"There is some additional flexibility afforded to students, in terms of their outreach and how they design outreach," said UC-Santa Cruz's Vargas.

At Berkeley, Margret Aregbe, 18, an African-American pre-med student from East Oakland, said, "We call the schools and get the demographics of how many African-Americans go to that school. Then we put together thousands of packets, with fliers like 'An Introduction to the University,' 'Financial Aid,' 'How to Write Essays'. . ."

The Central Valley is a top destination for Berkeley's Latino students.

"We sacrificed our whole spring break last year," Cuevas said. "We go to the classes that have never heard of Berkeley before."

UC officials cheer the students' recruitment efforts.

"They are passionate about what they're doing, because they care," said Walter Robinson, director of undergraduate admissions at UC-Berkeley. "The students have seen the need for greater diversity and have taken it upon themselves to assist and supplement the university's effort.

"There are public policy limits to what we can carry out . . .They can go to any population and target any group because they don't represent the university, but themselves," he said. "They make the campus a better place."

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