Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Hand That Feeds

UCLA officials acknowledge that some freshmen are admitted for reasons other than their grades and test scores, that some students come from dramatically different backgrounds than many of their peers but show academic promise. They say there are programs on campus to help these students But De La Cruz isn't aware of them.”

This LA Times article, For an illegal immigrant, getting into UCLA was the easy part, by Jason Song, is the sympathetically told story of an 18 year old girl recently admitted to UCLA. She’s an “undocumented student” who graduated “barely in the top 20% of her class” with a mediocre gpa of 3.4, rounded up, and low test scores. Her background is unfortunate, but not tragic, and not that different from countless other illegal immigrant children. She was rejected by San Diego State, and accepted by UCLA where the average freshman has a 4.22 GPA in 10th and 11th grades.

Now, she's struggling academically and isn't even aware of how or where to find help. I’ve spent time tutoring in “underperforming” LAUSD high schools in both honors classes and remedial classes where some students were then awaiting their court dates for assaulting police officers. In the honors class, the students, all Hispanic, were encouraged daily by an unflaggingly optimistic teacher to apply to 4-year universities; community college was an extreme last resort. Entire classes were devoted to filling out the college forms and applications with explicit instructions: “write your name here. Don’t forget about this deadline. Here is how to fill out the FAFSA.” All the high school teachers were doing everything they could to get these students in to 4-year universities. They were repeatedly informed of every scholarship opportunity, every form of help available. The teachers practically filled out their forms for them.

And one of these students made it to UCLA, completely unprepared to find her own resources because they’ve always been found for her.

The teachers aren’t to blame and neither are the schools, whose reputations and even funding are based on the percentage of kids to graduate and go on to college. But they’re not teaching self-sufficiency. They’re teaching students to depend on others to tell them what they need to do and by when. Passively waiting to be told information is a sure way to fail out of UCLA—I know; I went there.

Not only is this 18 year old academically unprepared, even having to take a remedial English class before entering Freshmen English, she has been taught to expect help. She might be able to overcome her academic deficiencies and rise to the higher expectations, but having the drive to succeed without knowing how to advocate for your own success leads to failure.

She missed the summer orientation program, found out late about the free tutoring services, didn’t access her UCLA e-mail account until many months into the school year (which has a number of helpful links to resources neatly mapped out on the left hand column), and can’t even manage to find a computer on which to take a practice test even though Powell Library is lousy with them. It’s hard for me to write about this without wanting to hit her over the head with every word, but the kicker is that she was set up to fail by the very system that aches to see her triumph.

The most valuable lesson I learned in my time at UCLA was to work the system; To find tutoring, to find professors who would help me get to the next level, to stalk TAs around campus for extra clarification, to find mentors who could point the way to programs and opportunities I may have missed in my hours of research. It's hard, it takes a lot of footwork and energy, and sometimes even clever people like me get schooled (pun not initially intended) and miss out on something. But finding that dogged, almost angry, active determination in myself saved my life after college--and is the reason I'm still writing.

What I learned at UCLA:

1. Everything you want to do is hard; few things are entirely impossible.
2. Most people will tell you "no" a lot, but don't listen to them until you've asked every single person multiple times. (a friend has an alternate version of this: Don't accept a "no" from someone not in a position to give you a "yes".)

3. Only after you have tried every single possible way to reach your goal should you switch direction, but even then you can circle back later.

4. Everything happens for a reason, usually a good one, but sometimes just because you screwed up. Do better next time.

5. "Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss." - Douglas Adams

If this student learns to be pro-active in her education, she just might make it. But after 18 years of being taught otherwise, the force of habit is against her.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but you have way more sympathy for the individual than I do.

If there were unlimited students admitted to UCLA, I'd say "great, give this person a chance". But since there are a limited number of individuals accepted, this person took a spot from another deserving person who met the UC standards.

And I'm not even going to go into the fact that this is an "undocumented" individual.

I just wish the UC students would take the best students on a state wide basis -- are you aware of the new acceptance criteria being considered this week? Yuck!

But thanks for your posting. You have a unique perspective that adds value to the discussion.

Lu said...

I would agree with your feeling of wanting to smack her for not being more proactive if I actually believed in the myth of meritocracy.

Even if she tries as hard as she can to succeed the doors will be closed for her once she graduates because of a decision she did not make (coming to the U.S.).

It seems you missed the part of the article where her undocumented status, her commute, lack of sleep, lack of support from her family were mentioned. If you are half awake and completely disconnected from your college community you will not hear about programs and opportunities or will hear about them when it's too late. Add the stress of her status and you have a willing but overwhelmed student.

She is not the first freshman to get lost in this new environment.

From what I have read from the other UCLA blogs she is a member of a student group now, learning to become proactive takes a while especially when you have to carry a social stigma, but it eventually happens.

LV said...

First, let me say a floored "Yippy!" that someone other than my mother reads my blog. Cool.

Second, thanks for keeping your comments polite - I've seen some real flamers go batshit crazy over controversial subjects like this.

Third, Lu, you're in a unique position to shed some light on this subject and I thank you for your input. It looks like you managed to graduate (with some good writing skills to boot) - what advice would you like to give her?

I'm also wondering how many undocumented students there are at UCLA. I would suspect there would be quite a number of them. I would assume that the social stigma would be less in SoCal, judging from my experiences in LA high schools and the general liberalism of higher education. Is it really still a factor? (I'm not saying it isn't-this is a legitimate quesion from a very very pale person who has no clue)

Anonymous - now you've got me curious about the new acceptance standards. I'd better do some research. Between you, you two have really outlined the opposing sides impressively. Cool. :)