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Summer Program Eases Students' Culture Shock

August 24, 1989|DONNELL ALEXANDER | Times Staff Writer

This summer has shown Elizabeth Grounds that her hometown of Barstow, although only 120 miles from Los Angeles, seems as far away as a distant planet.

The 20,600 or so inhabitants of her hometown are predominantly white and when Grounds, a 17-year-old college freshman, got A's all through Barstow High, she did it largely without thinking about people of other cultures.

She had never known any black people. In fact, she had misgivings about even approaching them.

Now while taking part in Occidental College's Multi-Cultural Summer Institute for incoming freshmen, she's not just approaching blacks, she's attending classes with them as well as with Latinos and Asians. She's surprised at what she's finding.

"It's like we're the minority," she said. "It's a different feeling, and it's a good feeling."

Made up of under-represented minorities and whites from rural backgrounds, the summer institute combines writing and American culture courses with workshops and field trips for 36 students from around the country who have been accepted to the small private university. Students earn credit for the course work.

The aim of the program, which was first proposed in the early 1980s by Occidental's minority caucus, is to acclimate students from diverse backgrounds to being on campus and in dorm rooms together. The first summer institute was conducted in 1987.

Freshmen who come from rural Alaska and Arkansas and the inner cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia are spending five weeks together in classrooms and dorms, picking up information in class and out.

"Some of them have never even shared a room before, much less shared a room with someone who's different than them," said David Morgan, Occidental's associate director of admissions and co-director of the institute.

Behavioral scientist Ann Schell, an Occidental College faculty member, is studying the institute's effectiveness. In her study, she is comparing the college performances of past institute participants to those of Occidental students who were invited to take part in the institute but did not.

Early and unofficial results indicate that the students who attended the summer institute are less likely to drop out of college than those who did not, she said.

One reason that the program may work is that it teaches students to balance work and play. The teen-agers are expected to participate in a full slate of activities.

On Monday, students arose early to ride to Tujunga and view its half-mile-long historical mural of California. Most of the sleepy students took with them a copy of a Flannery O'Connor short story to be discussed in an afternoon class, notes on an upcoming lecture or both.

"It's hard because it's academically intense, and you're supposed to be social at the same time," said Sonya Ramirez, a San Fernando High School graduate.

It takes students time to adjust to the differences between high school and college academic work, teachers said.

"They hear that it's demanding and hard," said Manuel Pastor, one of three teachers of the culture course. "But they have no idea what that means."

Perhaps the most important lessons the program has to offer are learned after class.

Standing before the chain-link fence separating the students from the mural's depiction of scientist Charles Drew in a lab, Kristie Robinson, a black student from Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, talked about race relations. While she spoke, Elizabeth Grounds, her new friend from Barstow, arrived.

"Some people were saying there were no blacks in their hometown," said Robinson, 18. "I could tell."

"I see a lot of change in myself," Grounds said, gesturing to Robinson. "Like Kristie. Kristie is one of my closest friends. And I never had any black friends before."

Kristie rolled her eyes. "I'm a novelty," she said in half jest.

"I had had preconceptions in the past," Grounds said. "And now I see them crumbling away."

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