Published Oct 1, 2008 9:00 AM
Bruin undergrads from UCLA's Student Initiated Access Center are working with promising underrepresented high school students to get ready for — or even to consider — higher education. One of many admirable consequences of this peer-to-peer outreach: Many of the kids who do go on to a university choose Westwood.
Inglewood High School graduate Timmetrius Henry didn't always have the respect of his peers, but the incoming freshman has noticed that there's something about winning two scholarships to UCLA that even gangbangers respect.
Henry — known as "TA" among his friends — recalled his friends' reactions as the hard-won scholarships piled up and he became his school's salutatorian.
"The so-called gang crowd, they look at you weird because you're doing well at school," Henry says. "So before, it was always, 'Look at TA, why he trying to do so much work?' Then, senior year, it was all, 'Hey TA, will you help me out?' Now they all say, 'Man, I wish I'd done what you did.' They were too busy being cool, but then this year I became, like, the coolest dude on campus."
In UCLA's quest to find the most talented students in each of California's communities, students like Henry are drool-worthy prizes. In the wake of Proposition 209 in 1996, which put the kibosh on admitting or recruiting students based on ethnicity, UCLA has found that winning over underrepresented students with Henry's credentials is an increasingly complicated dance.
UCLA students who were dismayed by declining campus diversity formed outreach groups to mentor local high schoolers, many of whom start out thinking college isn't even an option. Now, these student groups are a vital channel funneling underrepresented students into the university.
Working with the Student Initiated Access Center, an arm of UCLA's Community Programs Office, campus associations like the African Student Union, MEChA, and Pacific Islander and American Indian associations sponsor afterschool college-prep programs that are open to all, and you're likely to find them putting in 20 hours a week at ethnically diverse high schools.
Even Henry, who was always determined to go to college, credits mentors from UCLA for giving him the edge he needed — and also for wooing him away from other powerhouse universities such as UC Berkeley.
Arianna Taboada, a UCLA junior and one of Henry's mentors, notes that encouraging local students to put in the effort to prove themselves worthy of UCLA isn't enough. The idea of coming to UCLA, which is about 38 percent Asian and 34 percent white, intimidates a lot of Los Angeles-area high schoolers.
"I come from a regular, urban public school, and the demographics are totally not the same as they are at UCLA," Taboada says. That's part of why she joined SHAPE, the African Student Union's outreach group. "You mentor at schools like the one you went to, and you're able to give back to where you came from."
Once-faltering diversity levels have begun to recover from the drastic drop seen after Prop. 209, and African-American admissions have doubled since the shocking enrollment of only 100 black students in 2006, says Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs.
The competition for a diverse and accomplished student body is steep, she adds. Thanks in part to student outreach groups, more underrepresented students are interested in and eligible to attend UCLA.
"They don't just have to be eligible, they have to be competitive," Montero says. She credits UCLA mentors for helping achieve that.