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The Long Road From East L.A. to Yale, Oxford

June 13, 1991|CATHERINE KISSEE-SANDOVAL

It was a rare sunny day in England when I took my oral examination at Oxford University last fall. After two hours of questioning about my thesis, the examiners awarded me a master's degree in politics. With their nod, my formal education ended.

I walked outside exhilarated and high-fived the nearest wall. Oxford looked so beautiful and I felt so free. As I wandered over to a pub to celebrate, I reflected on the road that had led me, a Chicana from East Los Angeles and Montebello, to Yale College, a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford Graduate School, Stanford Law School and back home.

Each year, 32 Americans are named Rhodes Scholars to pursue graduate study at Oxford. In October, 1984, my class of Rhodes scholars flew to London and took a bus 60 miles to the northeast to the 800-year-old university.

The graduate studies program at Oxford is largely one of independent study. Graduate students choose a dissertation topic and meet with their advisers as needed. My supervisor and I usually met once every three months. Most of my time was spent alone poring over books in a library, which prohibited the checking out of any materials.

I left Oxford in June, 1987, with a second draft of my thesis and planned to finish it during my spare time in law school. As it turned out, three years elapsed before the final draft was done.

Though some suggested that I give up, I knew I had to continue for myself and for

those who would come after me. If I failed, people might interpret it not just as a personal shortcoming, but as a sign that Mexican-Americans could not make it at Oxford. These thoughts, and the encouragement I received from my friends and family, kept me going.

From an early age, my parents' encouragement was a crucial motivating force. They not only believed in a good education, they fought for it.

The elementary school my sisters and I attended, Dakota Street School in Boyle Heights, was 95% Chicano. While I was in the first grade, the principal somehow determined that all the students were mentally retarded. Working with other parents, my mother and father fought the label and got the state to test us. The tests revealed that few, if any, of us were "retarded" and some were gifted. I shudder to think about how things would have turned out if our parents had not fought that "retarded" label.

My parents urged us to take advantage of the educational opportunities they never had. My father, Vernon Kissee, who was born in Missouri, attended a community college, but, for financial reasons, was unable to complete a degree. Later, he became a court reporter, transcribing trials in the Los Angeles Superior Court. His courtroom stories inspired my dreams of becoming a lawyer.

My mother, Helen Sandoval, grew up in Benson, Ariz., a small dusty town with segregated cemeteries--Mexican and Anglo. During grade school, she and other Mexican children suffered the beatings of angry teachers chastising them for speaking Spanish in the schoolyard. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help her family. After she got married and had three daughters, she went back to school and earned her high school diploma. Later, she received an associate of arts degree at East Los Angeles Community College. Her tenacious pursuit of an education was a model for me.

After we moved from Boyle Heights, my education continued at Eastmont Intermediate School and Schurr High School in Montebello. I had heard about Harvard and Yale on television and applied to Yale after being sent an application through the minority recruitment program. After I was admitted to Yale, one of my high school teachers tried to persuade me to attend Cal State Long Beach, but I was determined to study in the East.

This spring, I interviewed students from Schurr, Bell Gardens and John Marshall high schools who were applying to Yale. It was wonderful to see so many talented young people on the threshhold of their dreams.

As I was writing the alumni interview reports for the admissions office, it occurred to me that their paths to Yale were less random than mine. The schools had established more advanced placement programs and the students had received more encouragement than discouragement.

But they are the lucky ones. Although many more Latinos have attended college in the last decade than in the previous one, about half of all Latino students never graduate from high school. Leaving because of financial pressure, pregnancy, alienation and a host of other factors, too many young people never reach their potential.

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