FOCUS in Perspective: Between Shadow and Act

A not so radical new plan to get black students around the country--especially the South and West--to experiment with colleges away from their homes.

(Having spent the summer in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas as a FOCUS Field Representative, the author describes how an idea can become a operative program. Planned and run by eleven Harvard undergraduates, FOCUS worked in 18 southern and western states to place 86 Upward Bound students in colleges away from home.)

IT HAD seemed so perfect when we were in Cambridge. The pieces fit and all the activity seemed "relevant." The staff meetings, the smaller, more "meaningful" discussion groups, the time spent with titles like Ethnicity and Assimilation: An Analytic Model, all somehow seemed to add tot the legitimacy of what we were going to do for the next three months. We had even offset a pithy, tersely cogent "Program Outline" which ran for five full pages.

According to the Outline, we were going to "improve inter-racial and inter-regional understanding". . . "to allay parochialism by creating a new and very personal channel of communcation". . . , and a number of other well-directed statements about the social impact of out program. The rhetoric was polite and positive.

Our objective was to enable graduates of various UPWARD BOUND Projects in the South and the West to attend college away from their home. The underlying philosophy for the Project lay in the belief that a substantial change of environment tends to broaden a person and give him a larger view of the life styles and opportunities that are available to him. Too often in too many places a student's life becomes a choice between the local community college or the draft. One could argue that the alternatives are in fact there, that any student can at least apply to any school, but the pressures to consider only the two alternatives are tremendous.

In the high schools where we worked, the counselor, hence, the parents, usually steered juniors or seniors to the local college--if they were lucky. But we didn't know all this in Cambridge.


We started in April with one or more staff meetings a week, so that by the beginning of the summer we sallied forth into the field with an articulated educational philosophy, three months of meetings, and comprehensive insurance policies. Everything was well-formulated and conceptualized. Unfortunately, in the field, it didn't all seem to work: a number of new pieces had been invented for the puzzle. Eventually, the new pieces seemed to fit as well in practice as the old ones had in theory. We had a fairly simple idea, but found that putting it into practice was by no means simple. somehow, by September, we had laced close to 90 students in 25 southern and Western schools.

So, my conceptions and staff meetings riding along with me, on June 6 I left Washington, D.C. in a '63 grey Volks heading for Magnolia, Arkansas. It was my first trip south of Richmond, Virginia; Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana were to be home for the next three months. The first leg of the trip was to be a quick tour of the entire region with stops at each of the six Upward Bound Projects in my region. The quick first tour was to see to what extent the Project Directors were interested in participating with us, and more important, how many students we could expect to recruit from each Project. All of out correspondence had been optimistic, so i fully expected to get at least four students from each Project.

I ARRIVED late in Magnolia, Arkansas. After calling the Upward Bound Project Director to tell him I was alive and well in Magnolia, I tried to check into a hotel.

Parking my car in the lot behind the hotel, I took the long-standing precaution of black people traveling in unfamiliar territory--making reservation from a phone booth directly across the street from the hotel, then dashing across the street to the lobby to lessen the chance of getting the I'm-SO-Sorry-someone-JUST-took-our-last-room-routine.

I laid my FOCUS Field Representative card on the counter almost as she was hanging up the receiver. She was the type of buxom woman that seems to live behind the counters of all such hotels, complete with a handkerchief pinned to the breast of her patterned blue dress.

As one might have predicted the lobby had its quota of potted plants that almost looked real, as well as a man in a light linen suit who stopped reading the Magnolia Daily Defender as I strode into the library. As the receiver hit the cradle of the phone she looked at the card, then looked at me, then said, more with her eyes than with her mouth, "Oh, so you're Mr. Wilson." By the time she said this I hand handed my bag to the bellhop and was taking out my pen t sign the room slip. Presented with a situation that must have seemed to her a fait accompli, she gave me the OK.

Later on in the summer the keys were not handed across the counter, and the waitresses in the diner were not on duty, but that first evening the Fates (or whoever controls such things) were smiling.

The next morning the project director was very cordial, and gave me a guided tour around the campus. By the end of the tour the first set of Cambridge guidelines started to topple. We had hoped to select students for the program by their personality, or something we saw in them that hinted they might profit more than someone else from attending school outside their home town. Obviously this was a very subjective judgment but we had set a minimal objective criteria based on grades, class standing, and test scores. However, a large number of those taking the test at this project had never taken an objective test before. The average score on one of these tests was almost one-half of our cut-off score. Most of the 12th grade students that attended this project had not traveled more than 30 miles from their home town.

As we ended the tour in front of the new gymnasium the director rounded off his conversation with the casual advice that perhaps FOCUS should consider working with some of the other Projects before it came to him. A half hour later I was back in the Volks heading South to the next Project, thinking that, if this continues, we might have to regroup in Cambridge next week for more meetings and discussions.

MOST of the black colleges that I visited had all recently experienced some for of student protest and disruption. At one, over 600 students and sympathetic faculty members were expelled for a protest that began over a complaint of poor food in the cafeteria. At another, state police earlier in the spring had surrounded several buildings and fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into a dormitory after a student black power rally. Even though, or perhaps because, many of the students had natural hair styles the administrations of all the schools were definitely wary of anything that smacked of student activism or radicalism.