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A voice for diversity at UCLA

One of only about 100 black freshmen, D'Juan Farmer pursues pre-med studies and a mission: persuading more African Americans to apply.

December 03, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

It didn't take long for freshman D'Juan Farmer to realize he stood out at UCLA.

The 18-year-old pre-med student from Compton has been asked at least 20 times if he is an athlete. Each time, Farmer politely says no. He is the only black student on the eighth floor of his dorm and often the only black student in the lunchroom or the lecture hall.

UCLA announced in June that it would have 96 black freshmen this year -- 20 of them athletes -- out of a class of 4,800. Not since 1973 have there been so few. Farmer and a few others were admitted on appeal, bumping the number to about 100. But word had spread about the "infamous 96," as Farmer calls it, and that number stuck. It became the black freshman badge.

Farmer had planned to focus solely on his studies his first year. But he found himself defending his new campus, challenging critics who said UCLA did not want black applicants.

Now, Farmer is balancing academics with a burgeoning activism. He and other black students worry that unwelcoming stereotypes about the campus will lead to a bigger drop in the number of black freshmen next year, despite the school's newly revamped admissions process. People, he said, are skeptical of UCLA.

"I'm trying to change their minds."

A recent Wednesday spent with Farmer demonstrated the challenges that he and UCLA face in changing those minds.

6:30 a.m.

As his roommates slept, Farmer ironed his jeans, fed his fish and then left his dorm wearing a black T-shirt with big white letters: "Got Black Students?"

Farmer helped prepare for the 9 a.m. arrival of 50 African American high school students, who would spend a day at UCLA touring the campus. The event was set up by UCLA's Vice Provost Initiative for Pre-College Scholars.

He broke away to attend his 9 a.m. calculus lecture but hustled back to meet the 17-year-old he was paired with for the day, Alyssia Torres, a black and Latina senior at Pasadena High School. She knew of the 96 black freshmen, and it disheartened her. Still, she was considering applying.

Torres had barely met Farmer before he led her into a throng of students chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Prop. 209 has got to go!"

It was a protest against the 1996 ballot measure that barred the state's public colleges from considering race in employment or admissions. Spurred by UCLA's falling diversity numbers, hundreds of students marched to a building at 10:30 a.m., where the University of California regents were meeting.

"Most people at UCLA don't really like the UC regents," Farmer told Torres, who smiled uncomfortably, looking as if she felt out of place.

"Raise up your fists!" a student shouted into a bullhorn. "Let everyone know, this is what diversity looks like."

"We are what diversity looks like!" Farmer and others chorused as he pumped his fist.

Torres joined the chorus, softly.

Farmer watched the time. He had to get to chemistry by noon. He would get his midterm results that day, and he was nervous.

A student launched into a speech: "An assassin's bullet cannot shatter a dream!"

"Yeah!" Farmer shouted. "We love Martin Luther King!"

Then he motioned to Torres. Time to go. They left echoes of the protest behind. Torres finally had a moment to ask questions. She had many on her mind.

Last May

Farmer graduated from the California Academy of Math and Science, a magnet school on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. He earned straight A's in his last two years. Except for UCLA, he received acceptance letters from all UC campuses, including Berkeley. But Farmer believed an undergraduate degree from UCLA would set him on a path to its medical school.

UCLA had admitted 244 blacks for the freshman class, and 96 had agreed to enroll, according to school officials. After a grueling appeal process, Farmer learned that he was admitted. He rejoiced. Church members and family bragged, mindful that few blacks got into UCLA. Farmer would be the first in his family to attend a university.

He felt an odd sense of pride, though. Farmer thought of his black classmates who also had applied to UCLA. There were 16 in a class of 140. All of them, he said, high achievers. One got in to Princeton, others to UC Berkeley and USC. But no others to UCLA.

"It wasn't that their grades were bad or their personal statements were bad," Farmer said later. "It had to be something beyond that."

11:45 a.m.

Farmer and Torres hurried toward the chemistry class at Young Hall, a building that had been chalked with the words "demand diversity."

"What financial aid do you have right now?" Torres asked.

"I have zero."

His parents' annual income is $97,000. Torres could relate. "Mine's like $70,000," she said. "They think I have money, and I don't."

Farmer told her he had nine private scholarships, enough for tuition but not a dorm. At the beginning of the quarter, Farmer rode the bus to UCLA from his parents' home in Compton, a two-hour trip. He later secured a $10,000 loan for housing.

Torres had a shot at many scholarships, Farmer said, because she was multiracial.

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