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Latino Alumni Reach Out to Aid a New Generation

September 12, 1991|BETSY BATES | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

After completing his bachelor's degree at USC in 3 1/2 years and receiving the top honor from the school's Mexican-American Alumni Assn., Esteban Cruz is embarking on reaching a new goal: a medical degree and practice.

"I am thinking of going into some type of surgery or into internal medicine, but most likely internal medicine," said Cruz, 21. "You have more contact with patients and the community in internal medicine, and I think I will enjoy working more on a one-to-one basis with people."

As he prepared for his first year classes at USC's Medical School, Cruz paid tribute to his parents, who had vowed that he would go to college even though they had to provide for a family of eight in Huntington Park. Cruz said his father had arisen every school day before dawn to drive him to the Lincoln Medical Magnet High School.

Cruz also recalled a night last February when the Mexican-American Alumni Assn. held its annual black-tie dinner. At that event, he told the assembled audience of lawyers, doctors, journalists and other professionals: "Thank you for supporting my goals. Without your help, going to college would have been very difficult and would have created further hardships for my family and me."

Members of the crowd at the dinner rose to their feet, applauding Cruz for his accomplishments and as a representative of the type of student the organization was set up to help. Many of the professionals were themselves beneficiaries of the MAAA scholarship fund, which has paid out more than $3 million in scholarships to 2,536 USC students since 1975.

In that time, organizations like MAAA have sprung up at several dozen colleges and universities across the country, most dedicated to providing networking opportunities for Latino alumni while generating scholarship money for promising high school students and undergraduates.

At one end of the spectrum of Latino alumni associations is USC, with its singular devotion to scholarship fund raising. At the other is UCLA, which has a strong political agenda. Most of the other Latino alumni groups define their goals in broad terms that fall between those of USC and UCLA.

More recent Latino alumni groups have varying goals and missions.

At Cal Poly Pomona, President Alex Garcia said: "Our primary purpose is networking. But we are also trying to raise money for scholarships and to help students in their academic achievements."

At Pepperdine University, Jose Castillo says a major goal of the Hispanic Alumni Assn. is to implement changes throughout the university and the community that can alleviate Latino students' sense of isolation on campus, and help them to graduate.

There are those who believe that Latino alumni organizations cannot help but get politically involved in campus issues of importance to Latinos and other minorities. A good example, they say, is the role played by the 120-member UCLA Latino Alumni Assn.

Lisa Rojas, president of the 2-year-old group, said its mission is already broader than USC's, in part because UCLA is a public school.

"USC is scholarship-driven. All they do is fund-raise, fund-raise, fund-raise, and at that, they do a great job," Rojas said. "At UCLA, we want to serve as a networking group, promote interaction among students, faculty and staff, and try to institute change in areas important to minority students and faculty. We hope to develop an advocacy role."

Raul Vargas, executive director of MAAA at USC, said other avenues are available to students on the USC campus who want to promote change or who feel culturally isolated once they get admitted. To try to be "all things to all students" would dilute the mission of the MAAA, Vargas said, and ultimately be a disservice.

Vargas' diplomas are from Arizona State University and Cal State Los Angeles and, because he is not a USC alumnus, he always has refused to take the microphone at the annual USC dinner. Still, those involved with the group say that without Vargas there would be no MAAA and certainly not one providing $330,840 in scholarships in one school year.

It was he who, as a young high school principal, was recruited to USC in 1971 to work "temporarily" in the Center for Urban Affairs with a mission of making USC more responsive to the minority community of Los Angeles. It was he who heard from young Latinos of the desire to attend a private school such as USC but who were blocked from doing so by the overwhelming barrier of tuition. And it was he who started making phone calls and visits to well-heeled Latino alumni of USC.

Eight founders, including Arco executive Al Zapanta and his physician cousins, Edward and Richard Zapanta, put together the first fund-raising dinner, which generated $16,000 for scholarships for the 1975-76 school year. The university matched the proceeds 2 to 1 (as it has continued to do), which gave the fledgling MAAA $48,000. Vargas, 51, was named director of the group--a position he continues to hold.

Today, the Miller Brewing Co. underwrites the entire cost of the annual dinner, and high-profile companies buy tables. Undergraduate scholarships have been supplemented by medical school grants: one for a student in each year's USC medical school class. The group has raised, additionally, nearly $1 million for an endowed fund to be matched 2 to 1 by the university for future scholarship income.

The MAAA's success is personified in the organization's current president, Martha Tapias of Channel 34, and the co-chairs of the dinner, attorney Michael Morales and PacBell public relations specialist Karime Sanchez, all of whom went to USC with the help of MAAA scholarships.

"Our family has come full circle," Vargas said.

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