The night he left East Los Angeles for Harvard, George Sanchez recalled, his parents took him to the local church to be blessed by the priest.
"They had no way of knowing what they were sending me off to. I didn't know." Within the next few hours, Sanchez took his first plane ride, to Boston, and his first taxi, to the ivy-covered walls of Cambridge. There, also for the first time, he would come to realize he is a Latino.
"I knew I had Mexican parents," said Sanchez, 28, who had attended St. Paul's High School, a predominantly Anglo Catholic school in Santa Fe Springs. "I thought of myself as an all-American kid in some ways.
"All of a sudden I got to Harvard and realized what All-American meant and it wasn't me."
The distance from the nation's barrios and ghettos to the rumpled sophistication of its elite universities can be far greater than the mileage traveled--as other, higher profile cases have pointed out.
Jose Luis Razo, a straight-A scholar-athlete from Servite High School, a private school in Anaheim, said he never fit in during his two years at Harvard. "No one understood me," said Razo, 20, a Mexican immigrant whose wrist carries the tattoo of a homeboy, a local. He is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 12 charged with several armed robberies allegedly committed in Los Angeles and Orange counties during his college breaks.
Similarly, Edmund E. Perry, an honors graduate from Phillips Exeter Academy who had received a full scholarship to Stanford University, seemed to have turned education into a ticket out of Harlem and poverty. But his friends said he struggled with perceived racism at the famous Eastern prep school. Two years ago, Perry, then 17, was shot and killed during what police say was an attempt to mug a New York detective.
Pull of Two Worlds
These extreme cases, baffling to outsiders, may be explained by highly individual problems rooted in home life or emotional makeup. Yet the two young men--both bright and ambitious--also felt the pull of two worlds and the alienation of belonging to neither. It is a "sink or swim" feeling that many minority students--even the most successful--say they share.
"It's incredibly unfair. They admit them and expect them to muddle on through," said Catherine J. Kissee-Sandoval, 26, a Yale graduate from Los Angeles and the first Chicana Rhodes Scholar, who wrote a 1986 study on Latinos in the Ivy League.
She said even academic deficiencies are easier to overcome than homesickness and alienation. "After the first or second years and you learn to write papers and analyze, that part becomes easier. . . . The problems are more difficult when you're dealing with personal and social factors relating to issues of race and culture and ethnicity," she said.
Michele Denise DeCouteau, a black Rhodes Scholar-elect from UC Berkeley, said, "Recruitment is half the work. To finish the commitment, they (university administrators) should concentrate on retention."
"(Black) students who come here are prepared. They have the qualifications to do the work," said DeCouteau, an engineering student. "However, social, cultural and ethnic issues can sort of chip away at your self-esteem. Very subtle psychological factors can interfere with how you perceive your ability to do your schoolwork and how others perceive your ability to do your schoolwork."
DeCouteau's father is a conductor with the San Francisco Ballet and her mother is an educational psychologist. She had no financial worries, but DeCouteau said she shared common experiences with more disadvantaged minorities and relied heavily on two university programs, the Minority Engineering Program and the Professional Development Program for minorities.
"Minority students are something of an island. It's important to know you're not the only one. It's tremendous knowing there are people you can go to in terms of a psychological boost, to get back your perspective and keep you from falling into a hole of despair and self doubt."
Improved minority support programs, more hiring of black faculty members and a grievance board to investigate allegations of racism were among demands this fall of UC Berkeley's African Students Assn. Black students criticized university administrators for not responding to their special problems.
Lack of a sense of community, as well as academic problems, accounted for alarming dropout rates for black students, a UC Berkeley task force reported last year. At Berkeley, 73% of black and Hispanic students drop out, contrasted with 35% for all students combined.
Mia Barber, a junior, said she was ready to transfer to Howard University, a predominantly black institution in Washington, as a result of racial incidents last spring at a co-op residence. Friends in the African Students Assn. encouraged her to stay, she said.