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The Faces of Change

By Jack Feuer, Photos by David Black

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:00 AM

In 2006, fewer than 100 African-American freshman chose to enroll at UCLA. The entire university community came together to meet this challenge and, as a result, African-American freshman enrollment has doubled. Today, the first students to benefit from these efforts are about to graduate. They are appreciative of all that's been done for them — and even more determined to pass the legacy on to those who follow.

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Jared Richmond makes sure to smile at every African-American Bruin he meets on campus.

Jasmine Hill '11 was accepted to UCLA in 2006, but Westwood wasn't high on her list of choices. Then the young scholar was invited to campus for a weekend hosted by the UCLA Afrikan Student Union and the UCLA Black Alumni Association (UBAA), and everything changed.

"Those students told us what UCLA was about," says Hill, now the president of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), "the rich legacy of people of color on this campus, and the impact they've made through their activism and their scholarship. They [challenged] us not to just come and be students, but to be leaders. ... The great thing about UCLA is that it allowed me to be who I am and craft out what kind of leader I want to be. Who would have thought that I would eventually become student body president?"

One of Hill's constituents, Dennis Denman '11, had decided to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta after graduation in 2007, the nation's only all-male historically black university. In fact, he already had a plane ticket when he came to Westwood for an event. "I was just going to be nosy and it was a free meal," he says with a laugh. "But I met some of the alumni, saw some other classmates, and they all said, 'We know Morehouse is a great school, but come to UCLA — we'll take care of you.'"

When Denman struggled after coming to campus and sought help from the nation's premier student retention program, UCLA's Academic Advancement Program, or AAP, "peer support got me through." Now the sociology major intends to go into higher education after he graduates, "because of my UCLA experience. I want to do my part to help another underrepresented student's experience be as good as mine."

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Jasmine Hill on Bruin Walk, talking to Afrikan Student Union President Kenyada McLean.

These are just two of what now totals almost 1,000 African-American undergraduates, all of whom chose to attend UCLA since 2006. What changed? An extraordinary commitment by the university at all levels to find solutions, and an enthusiastic, broad and deep partnership between faculty, administrators, students, alumni and friends to encourage the best and brightest underrepresented students to enroll at UCLA.

"The last five years have been a phenomenal set of opportunities for the university and for our engagement with different communities, both internal and external," says Janina Montero, UCLA vice chancellor of student affairs. "It has enabled us to have a difficult and complicated set of conversations that, however, have brought a lot of people to the table. This is very important for the sense of belonging of African-American students, for the connection between students, for community-based organizations, and for the university."

A Tradition Endangered

Throughout most of the 20th century, most of the African Americans living in California lived in Los Angeles. And if you asked most black high school kids in Los Angeles where they wanted to go to college, most would probably say UCLA, or at least put it at the top of their list.

Westwood, after all, is where Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ralph Bunche '27 went to school. As did Congressman Augustus Hawkins '31. Former Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley '41. And a host of other African- American leaders, thinkers, scientists and scholars who chose what the UBAA notes "has frequently been called 'our University of California.'"

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Ashley Williams, here on work-study duty, is actively involved in efforts to increase African-American representation on campus and at other UC universities.

Yet in 2006, only 100 out of 249 African-American admittees chose to come, less than 2 percent of the incoming freshman class of 4,800. The community demanded answers and UCLA Magazine noted in its October 2006 issue that "the drop in freshman enrollment by underrepresented minorities, particularly African Americans, strikes at the heart of the principle upon which the University of California was founded — to provide access to excellence for a student body that reflects the state's diversity."

There were some obvious external factors contributing to the diminished enrollment over which UCLA had little or no control. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action — with which, of course, the university had to comply. Also, in the years leading up to 2006, the academic landscape had changed dramatically, with an increase in the competitiveness of admissions, both in terms of astronomic growth in volume and the academic quality of applicants to UCLA. (For the 2011-2012 academic year, UCLA expects to receive approximately 60,000 applications, the most of any school in the country.)

Still, action was necessary. The university went into high gear, ramping up efforts to increase "yield"; i.e., the number of admitted African-American students who actually enroll, with the very active involvement of current black students, student organizations, community organizations and alumni. And the university "became extremely aggressive in communicating with the African-American community generally, and with students and parents in particular, that we truly wanted African Americans at UCLA," recalls Winston Doby '63, M.A. '72, Ed.D. '74, vice chancellor of student affairs emeritus at UCLA.

Acting UCLA Chancellor Norm Abrams created an African American Enrollment Task Force of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders to address the issue and established an internal working group to tackle the problem in consultation with relevant faculty groups. University administrators in the Admissions office, including Montero, Associate Vice Chancellor Thomas Lifka and Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools (UARS) Vu Tran Ed.D. '99, dove into the research surrounding the issue.

UCLA was already deeply involved in academic preparation and other outreach programs, and had been for 30 years, many in partnership with community groups, philanthropic organizations and local schools. A small sample of that long list includes the Bruin Ambassador Program, launched in 2007, that selects, hires and trains more than 40 UCLA undergrads who join with professional staff recruiters to visit more than 300 public and charter high schools in the L.A. region, talking with high school counselors about UCLA admissions and identifying prospective UCLA students.

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Williams takes a study break outside of Royce Hall.

Other outreach efforts include the African American Alumni and Community Task Force, which works with friends and alumni to increase African-American yield consistent with Prop. 209; the Vice Provost Initiative for Pre-College Scholars, known as VIP Scholars, a partnership between UCLA and the Los Angeles and Pasadena school districts to help prepare historically disadvantaged students in grades 9-12 to become competitively eligible for admission to UCLA, and many others.

A key role was the cooperation UCLA received — and continues to receive — from the philanthropic organization California Community Foundation, which established a scholarship fund to support renewable scholarships for African-American freshmen admitted to UCLA. This is something the university was prohibited from doing because of Prop. 209.

Seeing the Whole Person

When the crisis erupted in 2006, there was already discussion among university leaders and faculty — the Academic Senate sets admissions policy at UCLA — about the method used to evaluate applications. UCLA used "comprehensive review," in which different readers look at different aspects of a candidate's qualifications. Under consideration was the addition of "holistic" review, a system used at UC Berkeley, the Ivy League schools and other selective institutions, in which applicants are assessed by two trained readers in terms of the full range of their academic and personal achievements, viewed in the context of the opportunities and challenges each has faced.

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Jasmine Hill in her USAC office.

The UCLA Academic Senate voted to approve a holistic model for freshman admissions beginning with the 2007-2008 academic year. Since then, the number of admitted African-American freshmen who choose to enroll at UCLA has topped or come in just under 200 every year. And many others benefited as well: The total number of all underrepresented freshmen rose from 765 in the fall of 2006 to 962 (out of a total of 4,636) in the fall of 2010, according to UARS.

UCLA also received what administration leaders describe as "tremendous" cooperation from UC Berkeley in moving quickly to include holistic review in Westwood. The admissions office made these changes incredibly quickly — over a three- to four-month period.

Ashley V. Williams '12, whose parents are immigrants from Belize, grew up in areas of L.A. so tough she was forced to go to a different junior high school because "my teacher wanted to get me out of the neighborhood." Heavily involved in efforts to increase the African-American population at UCLA and other UC campuses, Williams believes that holistic review "gives students from the inner city a chance to tell their story beyond letter grades."

Her fellow students agree. "We've reaped the benefits of the struggles that people went through to get the admissions policy changed," agrees Jared Richmond '11, a UCLA Foundation scholarship recipient who mentors other Bruin students and is co-director of the Hip-Hop Congress at UCLA, a series of events within USAC's Cultural Affairs Commission.

A Legacy Renewed

Most qualified African Americans were applying to UCLA, but many were choosing to enroll at other elite institutions instead. The fundamental issue, notes Tran, is that "the percentage of African-American students graduating from high school remains a small portion. Admission to UCLA is very competitive, so we won't be able to admit a lot of students. And African Americans have many other choices — the Ivy Leagues, USC, Stanford and elsewhere. It's a challenge for us to meet expectations without violating Prop. 209."

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Jared Richmond tutoring a fellow Bruin.

Private schools, for example, offered full scholarships. UCLA, per policy, could only offer need-based aid. So while the university's efforts were considerable, they were limited by law.

Alumni, however, were a different story. Right away, a handful of major donors stepped up, giving more than $1 million to help the university's efforts to improve yield numbers of African-American admittees. In fact, "the biggest impetus to better yield was offering a scholarship to every admitted African-American student," notes Lifka.

And the UBAA stepped up in a big way as well. "Prop. 209 handcuffs the university, but it doesn't handcuff individuals to do what they deem necessary and important on their own time," notes Rickey Ivie '73, J.D. '77, founding/ managing partner of L.A. law firm Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, and donor and chair of the UBAA board.

Progress Made

Re-visit the previous UCLA Magazine feature Crisis Point to see the evolution of African-American freshman enrollment in only five years.

In the fall of 2009, the UBAA launched the Legacy Scholarship Campaign — it was at a Legacy Scholars dinner that Dennis Denman was convinced not to go to school in Atlanta — to raise $500,000 in each of the next three years to help preserve African-American enrollment at UCLA. The goal: Award 30 scholarships of $10,000 each to "superlative" black freshmen and more, to provide each African-American enrollee (except scholarship athletes) with a scholarship of up to $1,500 each.

The idea was Doby's, recalls Ivie. "Winston's suggestion was to make sure that we connect all the different generations, and that would be a central theme of fundraising," he explains. "So we began to reach out to all the graduating classes as far back as we could go. We wanted the kids to know who these people are — [prominent African-American alumni such as] Dr. Don Sanders '73, M.D. '79; Johnnie Cochran '59; Virgil Roberts '68, M.A. '69; Yvonne Brathwaite Burke '53. This was a way to connect the past with the present."

The new awards were matched 3-1 by UCLA's recently established Bruin Advantage Scholarship, which provides up to $10,000 per year for qualifying students for their remaining three years at Westwood. The program leverages the Bruin Scholars Initiative, UCLA's campus-wide effort to increase financial support for graduate and undergraduate students. (The UCLA Alumni Association also offers incoming students other opportunities, such as the Dr. Ralph J. Bunche Alumni Scholarships, which recognize and support freshman Bruins from historically underrepresented backgrounds who add to the diversity of the UCLA community.)

In all, more than 300 donors gave about $510,000 to the UBAA Legacy Scholarship Campaign in 2009-2010. Twenty-five African-American undergraduate students received $10,000 scholarships and qualified for the Bruin Advantage Scholarship match. And 160 African-American students received at least $1,000 scholarships in the first year alone.

Peter Taylor '80, who chaired the African American Alumni and Community Support Task Force (created by then-Acting Chancellor Abrams), is a former president of the UCLA Alumni Association and is now chief financial officer for the University of California. He says that UCLA "has done a very good job of establishing a model for campuses around the country in engaging the community to do outreach, to enlist UCLA students and alumni. [UC San Diego] has put in place a scholarship program for African Americans based almost word for word on the way we did it at UCLA. Davis is looking at it as well. I feel pretty good about the network of support and engagement that has been put in place."

"It's not just that [scholarship recipients] came and were successful," adds Keith Parker, UCLA assistant vice chancellor for Government and Community Relations and a member of the Chancellor's task force. "It's what that message means to other kids."

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Denman tries on one of a multitude of Bruin-themed hats he owns — the fervent Bruin loves to wear UCLA merchandise.

Challenges Still Ahead

Still, obstacles loom, including the state budget crisis, demographic changes and a besieged K-12 system that is producing smaller numbers of qualified candidates.

"Strategies for further improvements in diversity are being discussed," says UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. "It is generally believed that it will be necessary to increase the pipeline of highly qualified students. This will require improvements in inner-city schools, improved mentoring and so on. UCLA programs reach many city high schools, but more needs to be done."

And UCLA will continue to do what is needed to fulfill its mission to be a resource for all Californians. "Every one of those students is absolutely precious," says Montero. "Given the diversity of our student body, there is tremendous potential for us to truly be the best institution for these communities."