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 With frozen treats from a favorite off-campus haunt, Bronx Academy of Letters students Lorraine Avila and Alexander Lambie cool off by Ludwig’s Fountain on a warm summer day. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

From the Bronx to Berkeley

| 21 August 2008

Back in the South Bronx, Alexander Lambie and Lorraine Avila are used to being standouts. For one thing, they study at Bronx Academy of Letters, a public high school where writing is the focus and college is the goal.

For another, they’re just plain smart. And funny, independent-minded, and articulate.

But six weeks at Berkeley this summer, taking university-level philosophy and psychology courses through a new program funded by a philanthropically minded Cal alumnus, taught these about-to-be-seniors an unexpected lesson.

“It definitely humbled me,” says Lambie, 16, an aspiring actor. “Meeting all these new, intelligent people, it makes me say I’m not as smart as I think I am.”


To ward off homesickness, Lorraine Avila posted photos of family and friends in her dorm room.

“For real,” seconds Avila, a 16-year-old who says that while her Bronx Letters teachers put her on a pedestal, at Berkeley she was just one among many stellar students.

This revelation often comes as a shock to kids arriving at Berkeley from the top ranks of their high-school classes, and it can make for a rough transition to the rigors of the university.

For the Bronx kids, who have another year to prepare for college, it was a welcome growth experience.

And that’s the point of the new Learning Leaders program, which brought Avila, Lambie, and seven other Bronx Letters seniors-in-waiting to Berkeley for July and the first two weeks of August. They roomed with strangers in Freeborn Hall, complained good-naturedly about the dining-hall food, and learned to love Yogurt Park and Blondie’s.


Coleman Fung

The program was conceived by Coleman Fung, who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and operations research here in 1987 before founding Open Link Financial Inc., whose executive chairman he remains.

Fung, who now lives on Long Island, has been a generous supporter of his alma mater, creating an endowment for the Coleman Fung Chair in Financial Modeling in the College of Engineering in 2006, funding the Coleman Fung Risk Management Research Center in the Department of Economics the same year, and establishing the Coleman Fung Media Center with a $5 million gift to the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, which opened last year.

Fung dreamed up Learning Leaders because he was looking for a way to provide kids who come from hard lives and are underrepresented in U.S. universities with a “good, challenging opportunity.” A friend-of-a-friend coincidence led him to the Bronx Academy of Letters, a young school that just graduated its second class. Fung was drawn to its rigorous focus and its dynamic kids, most of whom are Latino or African American. “Basically, I just want to help them build a really good résumé for their college application,” he says.

Fung developed Learning Leaders around the concept of community service, which he believes helps young people build a strong sense of self. To qualify for Summer Sessions at Berkeley, the students spent 100 hours over the last school year working with children whose families were on the verge of falling apart, through Episcopal Social Services in the Bronx.

Fung connected his concept to his school through Education Unlimited, a Berkeley-based business that runs a variety of summer “camps” for 4th- through 12th-graders at Berkeley, Stanford, and other top universities.

The Bronx students took one Berkeley Summer Sessions class, for credit, plus SAT prep and writing or public-speaking courses. The program cost about $8,000 per student; Fung funded all nine. And he made sure that the program wasn’t a financial drain on the kids’ families by giving them $600 each for books and supplies plus a $1,500 stipend to make up for lost summer earnings.

Escaping dysfunction

At Bronx Letters, administrator Victoria Crispen says the school views experiences like spending a summer at Berkeley as potentially transformative for the students, by getting them “out of the mindset of the dysfunction of their community.”

“I think it helps them to feel that college is the next step, not this ambiguous, untenable thing,” Crispen says.

Lambie found his class, Philosophy 3, The Nature of Mind, highly stimulating — and challenging. “In high school,” he explains, “you’re more likely to be asked to consume a lot of people’s arguments … and then regurgitate it. In college … it’s a lot of your own thought put into things.”

Avila says her Psychology 1 class was harder than she expected, because it covered a whole semester of work in just six weeks. She found a tutor — and a new appreciation for what college will require.

Making friends with bright students from all over the world — Hong Kong, Italy, as well as other parts of the United States — turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of the experience. As Avila tells it, “Even though we come from a lot of different backgrounds, I feel like we really connect, that we have a lot in common.”

The Bronx kids had a lot to offer in that department, too, according to Eric Enriquez, one of their two Education Unlimited advisers. Some of their more privileged peers, who arrived with laptops and iPhones, picked up on the Bronx students’ spirit.

“These kids really had to earn it,” Enriquez says. “For them, this is a huge opportunity, whereas someone from an affluent family might take that for granted. The Bronx Letters kids really set the tone for community, camaraderie, and friendship.”

Avila confessed to bringing along a big-city attitude about kids from more protected backgrounds who “whine about taking the bus or BART. I’m like, what’s the big deal?” But all that dissolved as they got to know each other.

“I’ve become more tolerant,” she says.

Not peaceful? Who knew?

The summer’s biggest surprise turned out to be the city of Berkeley itself. Avila arrived full of excitement about living in the home of the Free Speech Movement. She also expected Berkeley to offer a tranquil atmosphere, judging from her online investigations.

“It’s not that peaceful!” she says. “I thought it was going to be all hippies, but there’s a lot of homeless people. And they come up and talk to you. I don’t like that.” Lambie was shocked to see someone eating out of a garbage can. And they both were offered drugs on the streets.

It’s not that way back in the big bad Bronx. “This place definitely tests your self-control,” says Lambie.

In the end, it was all part of their summer enrichment.

“It really has made me a better person,” says Avila. Lambie, ever the joker, says, “It’s adding to the chaos.”