COMPTON — Centennial High School senior Nicole Finley was glad to see Jewel Plummer Cobb on campus last week.
In Cobb, a former cancer researcher who is the only black woman president of a major West Coast university, Finley saw a role model in her quest to become a physician.
"Since I'm going into science, (Cobb's visit) was good because it lets you know that you can make it," Finley said.
But Cobb, president of California State University, Fullerton, was also glad to see Finley and about 100 of her fellow students because they are using several Compton Unified School District programs designed to help them gain admission to college. "It is very encouraging to see that (Centennial) has so many students in its high-expectation group," Cobb said.
With test scores that demonstrate her academic promise, Finley is a member of both the MESA program--for students interested in Math, Engineering and Science Achievement--and a more general one known as UCO--for University and College Opportunity. Both are financed by state grants.
By offering students a variety of field trips, tutorial services and lectures by distinguished educators such as Cobb, the programs last year helped 42% of the district's 930 graduates go on to college or trade school, according to a district spokeswoman.
"My mother says that when she was in school she didn't get this much help, that only the two or three brightest students did," Finley said.
Targeting students as early as the seventh grade, UCO is a 5-year-old program aimed at getting gifted youngsters interested in seeking higher education when they might not otherwise do so. The program then tries to teach the students how to succeed academically and how to pay for college once they get there.
"For many of our students, they might be the first one in their family to think about going on to college," said Centennial Principal Henry Jefferson. "Many don't know about the array of (financial) assistance that they can get. They also don't understand the rigorous study habits that it takes to achieve."
Betty McTier, Centennial's math and science department chairwoman, said that because of the 10-year-old MESA program, her students will be able to receive many of the same experiences that youngsters in financially stronger districts enjoy as a matter of course.
"Through MESA summer school, the students get to be involved with the latest laboratory equipment," she said. For six weeks at California State University, Long Beach, professors there expose the Compton students to college-level science. During the rest of the year, Cal State Long Beach undergraduates work at Centennial as tutors.
Cobb spoke last week as part of Centennial's visiting professor series, which is sponsored by UCO. Cobb, 63, encouraged students to consider going into science, saying that things have improved for minorities since she broke into the field.
"Things were not as positive in the 1950s as they are in the 1980s," Cobb said. "But we realize now that many under-represented people must be brought into the mainstream--black folks, brown folks and women."
Cobb said that minority students going into science need extra assistance because they often face obstacles not faced by some whites. She said that is especially true for black women.
"I think it's more of a societal problem (for minority students)," Cobb said. "For women, parents and students sort of give them the idea that science is a male subject. Rarely do you see the queen of the football prom interested in science because it's not considered very feminine.
"For black men," Cobb continued, "it's a matter that they often have to work very, very hard--20, 30, 40 hours a week--" to support their families while also pursuing their studies.
Many of the programs used in Compton are also used in other inner-city school districts statewide.
According to state officials, this usage has produced an upward trend in minority college enrollment recently. Freshman minority enrollment in the California State University system has risen by 15.6% in the past year, and by 90% in the University of California system over the past seven years.
Cobb said programs such as UCO and MESA get more students into college primarily because they show the students that somebody cares about their future.
"The secret. . . . is the teachers," Cobb said. She said the positive attitude of the programs' teachers toward their students' aspirations helps the youngsters "know they can do it."