By Phillip Zonkel, Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram
This is the first in a series of stories about Hispanic Heritage Month, written in connection with our Newspaper in Education program.
Armando Vazquez-Ramos was an average student at Lincoln High School in East L.A. He maintained a 2.97 grade point average and never dreamed about attending college.
Then Joseph L. White stepped into the picture.
In the fall of 1967, White, an associate professor of psychology at Cal State Long Beach, was recruiting first-generation minority students for the university and its new Educational Opportunities Program, which helped promising, low-income students enter college through financial aid support and lower test score requirements.
White saw Vazquez-Ramos, then a senior, as a prime undergraduate candidate.
"We talked about an hour, but in the first 10 to 15 minutes I realized his potential," says White, 74, during a phone interview from his home in Irvine. "I saw a rare combination of natural brilliance and a strong commitment to social activism.
"Armando talked about the conditions in East L.A., the conditions facing people of color and the kinds of goals he had," White says. "We were going to take him."
Vazquez-Ramos graduated from Lincoln in December 1967, and White helped him secure financial aid for CSULB. By mid-January, Vazquez-Ramos was a freshman on campus.
"It was my exit ticket out of the barrio," says Vazquez-Ramos, 58, who earned a bachelor's degree in Chicano studies in 1972 and a master's in psychology in 1974 and is a lecturer in CSULB's Chicano-Latino studies department.
Marking a milestone
But EOP was more than a ticket out for Vazquez-Ramos. It blew open the doors for minority students at CSULB. The program, which was initiated in the fall of 1967 and celebrates its 40th anniversary this semester, was the first EOP in California.
The university also was the launching point for what would become a statewide, state-funded program.
CSULB is commemorating the achievement with a series of symposiums and guest speakers that will culminate in March honoring White. Specific dates have yet to be determined.
"It was the beginning of diversity at the university," says Vazquez-Ramos, who is organizing the EOP celebration.
White, 34 at the time, developed the initial concept for EOP in the summer of 1967 after noticing a dearth of minority students on campus.
White had a strong social-justice agenda and was a pioneering figure in mental health. In 1970, his seminal article "Toward a Black Psychology" in Ebony magazine would begin the modern era of black and ethnic psychology.
In 1967, the CSULB student population was 20,000 but only a small percentage were black or Latino students.
The state demographics were around 8 percent black and 12 percent Latino.
"This was an inequality," White says. "I knew those kids existed, and I knew they were able to do collegiate work. I had been one of them," says White, who attended San Francisco State University from 1950 to 1954.
White recommended recruiting more minority students to George Demos, the university's dean of students, who signed off on the idea.
"This was radical at the time. It was opening a Pandora's box," Vazquez-Ramos says, chuckling.
Demos found financing and also told White about the Cal State University system's "two percent rule," which designated 2 percent of first-time freshmen as "special admissions." These students typically were otherwise denied entrance because of low test scores or unsatisfactory academic performance.
But the rule was not being used to secure access for disadvantaged minorities. Instead, it was used as a loophole for athletic recruitments. Demos asked White to enroll 65 to 75 students and White informally called the idea EOP.
White and a few student volunteers visited high schools in Long Beach, Compton, Central Los Angeles, East L.A. and Santa Fe Springs and spoke with promising students whose grade point average or SAT scores were slightly below the requirement, or who were low income.
In all, for the 1967 fall semester, 200 students were recruited, 67 of them "special admissions".
"I knew the students were out there," White says. "No effort was made to recruit them. This class of people were being raised to work in the factories and the fields, not leadership classes.
"The university was a foreign place (to these students)," White says. "They didn't see anyone who looked like them. No wall kept them out literally, but there was a psychological wall that prevented them."
Vazquez-Ramos says he didn't think attending college was an option. "I was never informed about an opportunity to go to college," he says. "I had no idea what the Cal State University system was, even though I lived a mile from Cal State Los Angeles.
"They wanted people to believe that there weren't qualified students out there or if there were qualified students, they weren't interested in attending college," Vazquez-Ramos says. "It was veiled racism."
Making an adjustment
Once the first students arrived in early 1968, White and CSULB also helped them adjust to life on campus.
"You couldn't just bring (the students) here and expect them to be ready for the institution," says Doug Robinson, vice-president of student services at Cal State Long Beach. "It was frightening to some of the students when they got here."
Demos' office provided work-study money to hire tutors and facilitators while White's office arranged financial aid for many students and organized academic and career counseling, tutoring and mentoring groups.
Around the same time, Sacramento took notice of the university's EOP. White met with legislator Willie Brown (they attended Cal State San Francisco together) and a small group of other black legislators, who put together an EOP financial package that started moving through the Legislature.
"The people pushing the ideas were products of the Cal State system," White says. "We championed it saying, `We were successful because we were given the chance to go to the Cal State system and there are more people like us."'
At the same time, White, representing the Cal State University system's Chancellor's office, helped start EOPs at other Cal State colleges.
In April 1969, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 1072, which established EOP at the California State University system.
For the 1970-71 academic year, 3,282 freshman were EOP students in the Cal State system; 321 of them attended Cal State Long Beach.
In 2006-2007, 615 freshmen EOP students were enrolled at CSULB. That figure included 327 listed as "Mexican" or "other Latino."
Twenty-two of the 23 Cal State University campuses have an EOP program.
But everyone wasn't happy with EOP. One of the leading critics was Ward Connerly, University of California regent, and a proponent of Proposition 209.
Connerly and critics said EOP and similar university-admissions programs as well as hiring practices that considered race as a qualification amounted to "racial quotas" and were discriminatory. Prop. 209 was voted into law in 1996 and amended California's constitution to prohibit race and gender-based preferences in state hiring and state university admissions.
Some Cal State universities decentralized and reconfigured their EOPs from their original structure. As a result, that money doesn't always help the students it was intended.
David Sandoval, a 1969 special admissions student at Cal State Los Angeles, sees EOP as necessary now as it was 40 years ago.
"I wouldn't have been touched. I didn't have great grades, and I was a little rough around the edges, socially. I wasn't a conformist in high school," says Sandoval, the EOP director at Cal State Los Angeles. "We wore khakis and county pants and Sir Guy shirts. I was never a gang member, and I never got kicked out of school or was arrested, but I looked the part.
"It's not just a question of racial equality but of economic equality. There's more at stake now," Sandoval says. "Anyone who doesn't have access to capital is at a disadvantage. These programs help level the playing field. Education is the new civil rights movement."
At Cal State Long Beach, Robinson says EOP will be used to help students.
"We still, as a comprehensive regional university, have a responsibility to allow people to move up the social economic ladder," he says. "We will target people based on social economic status. We like the program and it works."
Phillip Zonkel can be reached at email@example.com or (562) 499-1258