Heavy stress, sleepless nights and hours of study consumed 18-year-old Araceli Amaro's final weeks of summer vacation.
Chicago native Robin Blake, 17, said the lengthy daily reading assignments, essays, a midterm test and a comprehensive final exam made her feel as if she had been "dragged through the mud."
Yet the two incoming Occidental College freshman said they are grateful for the realistic dose of college studies and the exposure to fellow minority students offered them during the first Multicultural Summer Institute at the Eagle Rock campus.
"I consider myself lucky to have been in this program," Amaro, of Huntington Park, said after completing the course last Friday.
"The other students are going to have no idea how difficult college is."
Amaro and Blake were among 20 women and 11 men chosen by the college for an expense-paid program designed to retain minority students by giving them a head start on college studies and by helping them adjust to living on the largely Anglo campus, said Eric Newhall, program director.
Dropout rates for minority students at Occidental and other liberal arts colleges are actually lower than those for Anglo students, said William Estrada, assistant dean of students. However, because of intense competition for minority students by colleges nationwide, loss of these students is of more concern to school officials, Estrada said.
"We take it to heart," because loss of minority students could indicate that Occidental is failing to serve them properly, he said.
Fourteen Latinos, seven blacks, six Asians and four Anglos enrolled in the program. The college financed the $75,000 program, which included the cost of instruction, meals and housing in a college dormitory. The students paid for their books.
Newhall also invited to the program several Anglo students raised in regions without large numbers of blacks and Hispanics, such as Alaska and Montana.
"Otherwise, those students might have difficulty when they hit Los Angeles, which is very culturally diverse," Newhall said.
Lectures focused on American history and society and special labs helped the students improve their writing skills, Newhall said. The students earned college credits for the course, which required that they read up to 100 pages a day.
"In high school they would give us a week to read that much," said Ana Figueroa, 17, of East Los Angeles, "But you learn to budget your time. You have to decide whether to go and have fun or do your reading."
"I didn't think it was going to be so hard," Amaro said. "They really shocked us. The first two nights I hardly got any sleep . . . and then I didn't sleep for two nights before the midterm . . . but I've learned time management and how hard college really is. I'm glad I was shocked now."
Lectures included topics such as "The Civil Rights Movement," "The Psychological Foundations of Prejudice," "Latino Communities," and "The Problem of Gender on Campus."
"In high school you get only a summary of American history," Blake said. "But in college you find out about it in detail."
But academics weren't the only lessons.
Tina Stalstedt, a black student from Connecticut, said that before she attended the institute she had had little exposure to Latinos and Asians.
"I met all these different people," she said, gesturing to her classmates.
Sokjong Kim, 18, of Los Angeles said he learned how to handle racist remarks and discrimination.
"They showed us there are lots of ways to go to authorities and take care of it," Kim said. "The program helped a lot, not just in the way of education, but in letting us get to know students from different ethnic backgrounds. . . . It showed us we can live and exist together and live in harmony."
Occidental's attempt to attract more minorities reflects a similar drive by most small liberal arts colleges throughout the country, said Charlene Liebau, director of admissions for the college.
"It's not that we're losing minority students," Liebau said. "It's that we're trying to attract more. More schools are putting this as a priority."
In fact, Occidental recently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges nationwide in attracting and retaining minority students, according to a report issued during a recent educational conference at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
In 1985, minority students made up 22% of Occidental's student body, up from 5.6% in 1965 when the college began actively recruiting minorities, Liebau said.
Enrollment statistics from 1985 show that blacks made up 3% of the college population, Latinos 6.9% and Asians 12.1%. That was an increase in the percentage of Asians and Latinos but a slight drop in the percentage of blacks from 1980, when 4.7% of students were black, 6.2% Latino and 9.2% Asian.
Liebau said the declining percentage of blacks reflects greater competition for black students among liberal arts colleges.
In an effort to attract more minorities, college officials agreed to finance the Multicultural Summer Institute for at least four more years, Liebau said.
"We hope people will understand that we are putting much effort into the program and that in fact we do have a commitment to under-represented minorities, to ensure that they not only come to college but that they have a positive experience, academically, socially and culturally," Liebau said.