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'Humbled' Tech Execs Fire Up Needy Students

Education: Pupils in Santa Ana get college-level instruction from computer firm that aims to make a difference in their lives.

June 16, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, the techies across the street from Santa Ana's Century High School wanted only a captive audience--give a few tours, talk up education and wow youngsters with tech lingo.

But with each tour, they found themselves asking, "Is it really making a difference?"

"We came to the conclusion that we wanted to create a relationship. We could have sent a check through our company's foundation, but we didn't want to," said Mike Sinkinson, a vice president of Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services, which handles Orange County's information technology at the county data center on Grand Avenue.

Instead, with help from school administrators, they created an innovative, hands-on program that has bridged a cultural divide between high technology and a school in a city with the nation's highest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents.

When the company volunteers sat down to think about developing their program, Sinkinson recalled his experience serving on a Century High review panel for awarding scholarships.

One of the girls who had plenty of promise was accepted to UCLA but had to decline.

"She didn't have the money to go," Sinkinson said. "Her father wasn't working, and her mother was holding two jobs to pay the family bills. When you hear of that, it just breaks your heart.... And we started thinking."

Sinkinson shared the scholarship applications with other ACS workers, who began to realize that life across the street at Century, which they drove by every day, was very different from their own.

Pupils Play Many Roles

In their applications, students described hardships faced by family members, many of them Mexican immigrants and first-generation Mexican Americans occupying the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Parents work one, two or three jobs while students care for siblings or find part-time jobs to help with finances.

Steve Ely, ACS program director for Santa Ana, said reading the applications "humbled me."

As a result, the company volunteers launched STEP--Student Technology Education Partnership--and now ACS techies visit Century High regularly to help teach computer classes. Two ACS supervisors, Steve Stawski and Wesley Kanamori, have helped students configure their own new computer network lab. Sinkinson got into the act as principal for a day.

Tours continue, but they're hands-on: no virtual networking here.

"They teach how to configure routers and do networking, which for a high school is unheard of. These students are getting an extremely worthwhile experience. It's absolutely college-level," said Leo Crawford, the county's chief information officer.

When ACS bought Lockheed Martin IMSA two years ago, it assumed the county's 10-year, $260-million data processing contract. Lockheed had promised to create a community program but never mentioned specifics. ACS wasn't obligated to fulfill Lockheed's promise, Crawford said.

This month, the company handed out $1,000 scholarships to four students headed to four-year colleges and $500 scholarships to four students bound for community colleges. The winning students are Yaran Yoth, Ivan Ninichuck, Judith Arroyo, Yanet Aguilar, Guadalupe Barrera, Sopheap Mao, Claudia Lopez-Guillen and Veronica Elias.

In addition, four students will win larger plums: paid summer internships across the street. Guadalupe, who will graduate in a week, and Miguel Martinez, a junior, have been chosen so far.

Jonathan Cordova and Miguel were Century's first to work as interns last summer, earning from $8.50 to more than $10 an hour.

Students are required to fill out an application, go through interviews and pass a drug test, providing them with a taste of reality.

ACS is considering hiring the young men full time after they graduate from high school next year, giving them a foothold with a Fortune 1,000 company to launch their college careers.

"We didn't just want to create an environment for internships ... and tours," Sinkinson said. "We also wanted, if possible, the opportunity to have them grow into the company. They live in the community, they have a vested interest; and we will have a dedicated employee."

Miguel's 2.5 grade-point average wouldn't garner much notice from a college recruiter. But Century computer instructor Alan Gersten and ACS executives know he is special.

"Miguel is just one of those students who's a natural around computers," said Gersten, the 17-year-old's favorite teacher. "Even as a freshman he would complete class projects way ahead of the other students."

Motivation Shows

It's Miguel's enthusiasm that has put him over the top. He commutes 26 miles each day from Corona to attend classes at Century. His parents--Miguel Sr., a landscaper, and Guadalupe, a housecleaner--moved to Corona more than two years ago to buy a home that could accommodate their family of six.

The other scholarship recipients are no less enthusiastic.

Veronica's high school years might have been packed with more academic achievements, even athletics, the 17-year-old said.

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