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Living a lie on campus

They go to class, stay in dorms, fool their new friends. But why? They can't graduate because they're not enrolled. They are impostors.

June 13, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

WHEN David Vanegas was going to Rice University, school officials say, he gravitated to large lecture classes where he wouldn't stand out. At mealtimes, he never seemed to have his ID card handy and relied on friends to let him into the dining hall. In the evenings, he persuaded students to let him stay overnight in their dorm rooms.

But his schoolmates began to notice odd things about him, like he never seemed to have any homework. Then in September of his second year at Rice, one friend discovered that Vanegas had used someone else's e-mail address to create his student Facebook page and challenged Vanegas to prove he was a student. He couldn't.

Partway into Vanegas' third semester, his career at the Texas university was over. Now 20, he is scheduled to go on trial this month on charges of stealing $3,678.74 in university food.

"He said the reason he did this was that his mother was ill and he didn't think she could stand the disappointment of his not being a Rice student," said university spokesman B.J. Almond. "Apparently he was a very smooth operator. How he could do it for a year I don't know."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Student impostors: An article in Section A on June 13 about people posing as students at universities incorrectly identified the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as North Carolina University at Chapel Hill.

Student impostors are rare, but they have popped up in recent years at universities across the United States, including Princeton, Yale and USC.

Last month, Stanford University discovered that 18-year-old Azia Kim of Fullerton had been posing as a student and living in campus residence halls for eight months.

Kim joined the ROTC at nearby Santa Clara University, attended classes on military history and tactics and received more than $1,000 worth of uniforms and other gear. An Army spokesman called it a "harmless prank," but Stanford police investigated her campus stay and forwarded their findings last week to the Santa Clara County district attorney.

It is well known that some job applicants puff up their resumes by claiming degrees they didn't earn. And some students have won admission under false pretenses, like Lon Grammer, who was a month from graduating from Yale in 1995 when school officials learned he had submitted forged transcripts from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo that raised his grades from a C average to A.

But what motivates someone to go to school and attend classes without any prospect of getting credit?

Jerald Jellison, a former USC psychology professor who specialized in the study of lies, said some charlatans take on a new identity to hide a criminal past. But impostors like Vanegas typically begin their charade to win approval from someone important, such as their parents.

"The first lie is a relatively small lie," said Jellison, who left USC last year to work as a management consultant. "Once you tell that lie, you have to tell more lies to support that initial lie. Once you get started down that road, it really is impossible to go back until you are found out completely."

Denise Pope, a lecturer in Stanford's School of Education, said the deceit often starts in high school, when a student facing enormous pressure to get into an elite university might lie about where he or she has been accepted.

"They literally can't bear to tell the truth," said Pope, who campaigns to reduce academic stress in schools. "These kids are lying in high school about where they are going to college because they are embarrassed."

Kim and her family have yet to speak publicly, but some of her peers believe that family demands and social pressure at high-achieving Troy High School prompted her deception.

"Its not like she purposely did this to harm anyone," a former classmate wrote in an anonymous post to the website of the campus newspaper, the Stanford Daily. "The expectations to go to stanford, harvard, yale, etc are unusually high. Although not all Asian-Americans at Troy felt the pressures from peers and parents to excel, A LOT of us did and still do."

Whatever their motives, impostors like Kim and Vanegas exploit the open atmosphere of college, where young students, living on their own for the first time, are surrounded by new faces.

In the dorms, overnight guests are common. Students often stay with their boyfriends or girlfriends, sometimes for days at a time. Friends may visit from out of town and attend a few classes. On occasion, students who flunk out remain on campus for fear of returning home. But to pose as a student for months or years requires a special talent for deceit -- and good fortune.

"The problem with telling a lie is you have to remember all the lies you told," said Jellison, author of the book "I'm Sorry, I Didn't Mean To, And Other Lies We Love to Tell." "There are a hundred tests a day. Some are easy and you can tell an easy lie, but some are difficult. It takes luck and cunning."

--

IT didn't take long for Kenneth Foster's luck to run out at USC.

University officials say he arrived in January 2005, began attending classes and hung out at Somerville Place, an African American theme floor in the Fluor Tower residence hall.

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