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Students Wrestle Big Issues at UCI

August 20, 1986|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

It was a standoff between the thirst for knowledge and thirst of the literal kind.

Anthony Ngubo had finished his talk on South Africa a good half-hour earlier, but students pursued him from the lecture hall, down a hallway and cornered him at a drinking fountain. As he leaned forward, hoping to soothe his overworked vocal cords, they continued to fire questions:

"Why is Israel so closely tied to the government of South Africa?"

"What would be the consequences for blacks (if South Africa promptly eliminated apartheid)?"

"A good bunch of kids," Ngubo said later, bemused by the enthusiasm of his young interrogators--Southern California high school juniors and seniors who, for the past 10 days, have lived on campus at UC Irvine as part of the university's second annual Knowledge and Social Responsibility Program.

But Ngubo, who spent most of his life in South Africa and now teaches at Mira Costa College in Oceanside, said that he was heartened by the students' dogged inquiring. "My hope is that young people will take up apartheid and make it a public issue here in the United States," he said. "Young people can contribute a great deal."

That was exactly the thinking of the people who put together the UCI program, in which 61 students--selected for their academic performance and leadership skills--live, virtually around the clock, with weighty world issues.

"We've tried to create something like a boot camp of the mind," said program director Manuel Gomez. "A child who learns to stand never again crawls. A child who learns to speak never again babbles. We want these students to learn to stand up for their beliefs and to act on them with intelligence."

"I've had complaints from students who say the schedule is too much," said Gerardo Mouet, coordinator of the program, which is co-sponsored by UCI's Educational Opportunity Program and the Orange County chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. "A lot of people said the students were going to burn out."

Instead, most students get caught up in the momentum of the 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. routine, Mouet said. Even after the formal sessions end, students may stay up till 1 or 2 in the morning, sprawled on the furniture and floors of the dormitories, savoring their first taste of college-style rap sessions.

'Thinking Never Stops'

"The thinking never stops," said Josslyn Luckett, a senior at Irvine's Woodbridge High, who attended the initial program last summer and came back this year to serve as a "rat" or resident aide trainee. "Lectures, workshops, lectures, workshops. . . . We're all mentally fatigued."

"At night, you get going on topics that are so controversial, you're bound to keep talking," added Mary Camacho, another trainee from Garden Grove High School.

The students, who "graduate" today, have played a bit of volleyball, shot some pool and been swimming a few times. They've seen a performance by Ray Charles, staged a talent show of their own, and watched some films: "The Day After Trinity" (the nuclear arms race), "Ballad of an Unsung Hero" (a Mexican immigrant's experiences in the United States) and "The Chosen" (Jewish culture in New York City).

But mainly they have worked, they said, ticking off "value clarification exercises," daily workshops on history, social sciences and communication, formal panel debates on issues of their choosing--immigration, euthanasia, abortion--and a litany of speakers who bombarded them with information and ideas about Central America and immigration, the situation in South Africa, Indochinese culture and the nuclear arms race.

Although speakers representing both sides of the nuclear arms debate were featured, students generally agreed that the program emphasized a liberal viewpoint on the issues. They also agreed, though, that the program's main message was to approach issues with an open mind.

Participation 'Keeps Democracy Viable'

"We want (the students) to have the courage to test their assumptions," Gomez said. "No other generation has had to face the reality that we leave as a legacy to our youth. . . . One of the primary responsibilities of leadership is to be able to act on our convictions. In that sense we're meeting one of the fundamental purposes of education in a democracy. Civic participation is one of the bloodlines that keeps a democracy viable."

As might be expected, "social responsibility" was a recurring theme.

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