UC Berkeley program teaches rural students value of education, diverse cultures, at six-week academic boot camp

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- For many young people living in the rural farming communities of the Central Valley, doing well in school is a low priority, according to Central Valley educator Nancy Mellor.

With one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the state, she explained, girls in this rugged area of California try to drop out of school after having babies. Parents, many of them farm workers, would rather see their sons excel athletically, not academically, she added.

Mellor and the University of California, Berkeley, are trying to help change all that through a successful summer program for Central Valley students in grades 7 to 12. Their message to them is that scholastic achievement is important and a college education is within reach.

Each summer since 1987, Mellor, a former teacher for the Coalinga/Huron school district and now principal of the Reef-Sunset Middle School in Avenal, has brought a group of Central Valley kids to the University of California, Berkeley, campus for a six-week "academic boot camp," run through the Graduate School of Education's Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP). Thousands of young people from around the country attend ATDP for academic advancement and enrichment.

The boys and girls from the Central Valley live in a large Berkeley residence - dubbed "Coalinga/Huron House." Each year, they kick off their stay by raising their own special flag, which flies throughout their visit.

This year's group, which arrived June 20, is predominately comprised of Latinos, many the sons and daughters of immigrants. But it also includes white, Asian, Pakistani, and African American students. In their own Central Valley communities, these groups rarely have the opportunity to integrate.

At Berkeley, they walk to class, study, eat and play together. Adults live among the students, serving as counselors, mentors, tutors and chaperones.

"I try to create an old-fashioned, family atmosphere at the house," said Mellor. "We sit down together every evening for dinner, we help each other with homework and play ping-pong, cards or pool - but no TV."

Living in Berkeley can be a culture shock for these young Central Valley residents, said Nina Gabelko, director of UC Berkeley's ATDP. "Being around other kids who are as equally interested in school as they are is unusual for them," she said. "The diversity of our community, the range of income levels and political opinion, as well as our beautiful hills and bay - all are very different than where they're from."

Because the students have to pay for their living expenses, they hold bake sales, car washes and even a cow pie contest in the fields near their hometowns to raise money.

Parents travel to Berkeley in shifts, many using precious vacation time, to cook and provide encouragement for their children. The kids return home for visits twice during the term.

The students spend nearly four hours each day in class, taking college preparatory, advanced placement and high school enrichment courses and doing lab work. The classes are taught both by UC Berkeley faculty and by instructors from all over the country. Many of the out-of-town teachers choose to spend their summer vacations in Berkeley teaching for ATDP.

During school days, the older students shepherd the younger ones to and from class. Each day, the entire group finds a picturesque spot on campus to eat lunch together.

Field trips and other activities add to the experience. This year, the group will travel by BART to San Francisco to catch the popular musical "Rent." Several of the students will be volunteers at the UCSF Medical Center, doing clerical work.

Some of the youngsters' most satisfying experiences happen by chance, said Mellor. One year, the group went to International House to hear a Russian musical quartet. Inspired by what they heard, the students invited the musicians back to the house for coffee and conversation. Along the way, with musicians in tow, they happened to meet some Tibetan monks who lived down the street, and invited them, too, for a visit.

"To see these rural kids sitting together with Russian musicians and Tibetan monks was such a wonderful sight," said Mellor. "In Berkeley, they are exposed to international culture in a way not possible in their own communities."

The Coalinga/Huron House program works hard to get participants ready for college by honing their academic skills as well as by teaching them how to socialize and be independent.

The program has been extremely successful, said Mellor. All 176 of its graduates have finished high school, and all but three have gone on to college. Program alumni have secured high-level jobs with some of the nation's top companies, but also donate time and money to give back to the program that made their success possible.

UC Berkeley also helps make sure the program stays on track. Coalinga/Huron House found itself homeless in 1998 because leasing arrangements could not be made with campus sorority houses, where the young students used to stay. But its value and success prompted campus administrators to step in and find a new home for these summer students.

This year, the students' new summer home is on Channing Way, just south of campus.

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