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, Nicole 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," Nicole said.
But Cobb, president of California State University, Fullerton, was also glad to see Nicole 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, Nicole is a member of the MESA program--for students interested in Math, Engineering and Science Achievement--and a more general program 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.
Mother Didn't Get Much Help
"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," Nicole 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 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 as part of Centennial's visiting professor series, which is sponsored by UCO. She 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," said Cobb, 63. "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.
'More of a Societal Problem'
"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.