They looked far more bright-eyed than they should have--certainly after arising at 4:30 a.m. and enduring a numbing five-hour bus ride that was slowed halfway through by a surprise mountain snowstorm.
But then the eighth-graders from Fresno were rolling up to a place they'd only visited before in their dreams: the UCLA campus in Westwood.
Members of the kids-run UC Club had traveled more than 200 miles Tuesday morning to convene a meeting next to the famed Bruin statue in the middle of the university campus.
The Fresno school club is made up of youngsters whose goal is to get a college education. Most of its 48 members come from Asian, Latino and African American families who live in the poorest sections of Fresno.
Students did odd jobs and conducted candy sales and raffles at their Ft. Miller Preparatory Middle School to pay for the $870 charter bus.
They were convinced that the trip will pay off four years from now when it comes time to set off in earnest for UCLA or other universities.
"I want to do something with my life," said 14-year-old Pamela Many, whose family is from Laos. "I want to be the first person in my family to go to college."
Explained classmate Chao Lor, 15: "My dad's a janitor. My parents want me to be somebody when I grow up."
UCLA officials, who escort hundreds of outsiders on campus tours each weekday, said they've never before seen a group of youngsters organize their own visit--and pay for it themselves.
"These kids are special," said Salvador Villagomez, a UCLA community relations coordinator. "So we planned a special tour for them."
The tour had to be scaled back at the last minute, however. That's because the students' bus was delayed about an hour by snow falling on Interstate 5 near Gorman, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. "I was kind of worried," admitted bus driver Bob Tucker of Visalia.
"We got scared when it got real foggy on the Grapevine," said eighth-grader Elizabeth Stevenson, 14.
UCLA students Terry Jones and Gregorio Alcantar led the youngsters into the campus athletics Hall of Fame, to Pauley Pavilion, past a lecture hall holding 200 students and through the bookstore.
Along the way, they were peppered with questions about class size, the length of lectures, grade-point requirements and university application procedures. One boy asked if "fights break out" among UCLA students.
"Absolutely not. This is college ," replied Jones, a graduate film student.
As they walked past Royce Hall and through knots of UCLA students hurrying between classes, some Fresno youngsters acknowledged that they are hoping to carve out their own identities in college.
"I don't want to be like my mom and dad and run a doughnut shop," said Cambodian-born Vannyvy Keo, 14, who came to this country after living in a Thailand refugee center. U.S. immigration officers mistakenly spelled her name Kao when she arrived. So that's the way it is printed on school records and on the back of the UC Club T-shirts that the youngsters were wearing Tuesday.
"I want to get an education and become a doctor. My parents work so hard," Keo explained.
That prompted a joke from classmate Bryan Philyaw, 14. "Yeah, you want to do a couple of expensive heart transplants and then relax the rest of your life."
The visit was over all too quickly. There were dark storm clouds and reports of sleet and hail falling on the highway to Fresno as the kids climbed back on their bus.
Club sponsor Nancy Weiler, an English teacher, led the way home in her car. It was filled with three club members who had not been able to fit on the bus.
Weiler said youngsters have also visited UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz in past years. The UC Club was started in 1991, meaning its earliest members--now seniors at five Fresno high schools--should be headed for college this fall.
"The club started because kids wanted to know how you get into college. Nobody in their families had ever gone," Weiler said.
"These kids have a lot of dreams and aspirations. They'll make it."