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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Painful Course to College

As Betsy Perez of Highland Park realizes her dream of going away to school, her father wakes up to the reality of just how far away.

August 18, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Ever since she was a little girl, Betsy Perez had known she wanted to go to college some place far away. Some place different from Highland Park, where she lived. In second grade, she wrote in a journal that one day she would attend Harvard.

Always, Betsy's father dismissed his daughter's grand plans with a soft smile. Sergio Perez, a truck driver, knew his children would have great opportunities. That was why he left Guatemala for the United States. He knew that one day she would become far more successful than he was. He knew that Betsy, a Franklin High School student, would attend a university. And it would be close to him.

In a blink, his daughter turned 18. A young woman now, with her father's personality. Smart and stubborn. Betsy called herself a feminist. She wanted to become a political reporter. She drew a picture of Rosie the Riveter and hung it on her bedroom wall, and she still talked of going to a university far away.

Sometimes when Perez got mad at Betsy, he would say, "Ahhh. Go off to your college."

Never did he believe she would.

*

Ten days. Five East Coast states. Fifteen colleges.

One morning last March, Betsy boarded a plane with 30 other students from Los Angeles public high schools. It was her first time traveling to the East Coast. She got off the plane in Boston and stepped into a flurry of snow.

The college tour was coordinated by a nonprofit group called College Match, run by a good-hearted man named Harley Frankel. The itinerary included Wellesley, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Trinity, Yale and Harvard.

Frankel is the former national director of Head Start. He also served as a senior White House aide during the Carter administration and as senior executive for the Children's Defense Fund. Today he raises money to take low-income Los Angeles public school students on nationwide college tours. He helps them with college essays and applications and raises money for their SAT prep classes. He gives them laptop computers provided by sponsors.

Frankel's son graduated from Harvard-Westlake, a private school in North Hollywood. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts and later transferred to Pomona College. Even with good counselors and teachers, his son's experience applying to colleges was daunting. Frankel wondered how students from overcrowded schools, whose parents had not attended college, figured it out.

He recruited his first College Match class -- 40 students -- in 2003. Word spread. Next year, his program will serve 110. To be eligible, students must have good grades and be college-bound. They must also agree to consider schools outside California.

Not long ago, College Match helped a Franklin High student get into Wellesley. But her parents had mistakenly overvalued their property in East Los Angeles on financial aid forms. As a result, Wellesley did not offer the girl money. Frankel spent a month straightening it out with Wellesley officials. But in the end, it did not matter. The girl's parents wanted her to stay close to home. So she chose UCLA instead.

It was all rather embarrassing for Frankel.

"I don't mind if a kid goes to a good West Coast school," Frankel said. "I don't have an East Coast bias. But when a kid turns down Wellesley, the kid is losing out."

On the East Coast tour, Betsy fell in love with the snow. She wondered, how could her father not understand her excitement? He was the one who taught her how much fun it was to travel outside of Los Angeles. In his blue 1979 Datsun truck, he took her to places like Oxnard, Big Bear, even Guatemala. Those road trips became Betsy's favorite childhood memories.

She applied to 15 colleges and was accepted to all but five. Her father supported her going to college. Maybe she could attend USC.

But Betsy was not accepted there. What about Pitzer College in Claremont? her father asked. It is only 35 minutes away.

Betsy had other plans.

"In Latino culture, the women aren't really supposed to go far away," Betsy said. "I have been the black sheep on the women's side of the family. I just don't accept that whole mentality. I don't."

Months earlier, while on the college tour, Betsy told Frankel she had already made up her mind. She wanted to go to Trinity College in Connecticut. It was small and friendly. Perfect.

When the Trinity acceptance letter arrived, Betsy e-mailed Frankel. The school was offering Betsy the best financial aid package.

"What do I do?" she asked Frankel. "My parents want me to go to Pitzer. How do I tell them I'm going to go to Trinity?"

"You're a big girl now," Frankel recalled telling her. "Tell them you love them. Tell them you will always have their values."

That night, Betsy called her father, mother and older brother into her bedroom, decorated with 41 Barbie dolls, a string of Christmas lights and a Nefertiti statue.

"I want to go to Trinity," she told them.

Her father sighed. "Even if we argue with you, you're not going to change your mind," he said in Spanish. "So what's the point of us saying anything?"

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