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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.

By James Q. Wilson

(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.

Though the questions from the administrators seldom got as blunt as "How do you feel about riots and/or outside agitators," someone usually brought the issue into the conversation. If we talked long enough we could usually agree that black power was necessary, but when the conversation turned to means it was best to turn the conversation to something else.

To complicate matters further I was traveling in the shadow of the Reisman-Jencks Report on Negro Colleges, which was highly critical of the black colleges in the South. It touched off a wide-ranging debate which culminated in a critique of the Report by four leading black educators, and another reply by Reisman and Jencks.

The preliminary tour took six days by car. In Atlanta, Georgia, I rendezvoused with the five other Southern Field Representatives who had just returned from their regions. We compared exults of the tours, and forwarded this information on to our coworkers in the West who were securing commitments from the colleges we had approached about admitting FOCUS students.

After the two-day meetings we took a half day vacation (which included a group of us being thrown out of the Bow $ Arrow Restaurant on the main highway into Atlanta. We tried to take advantage of their all-you-can-eat-for-1.75 Luncheon Buffet Special. Johnson says I have to serve you but that don't mean you can go through that buffet line."). So with sunny Atlanta behind me, I continued to Tougalo, Miss. to begin to select the Students who would be going to California, Oregon, and Washington to attend college.

Tougaloo College, in Tougaloo, Mississippi, is like many of the other private black colleges in the South. It is small (enrollment is about 700), but because it is one of the better black colleges in the South its influence is out of proportion with its size. Like all administrators at good schools, the administrators at Tougaloo are proud of their position. Fifteen minutes from the state capital in downtown Jackson, Tougaloo's campus is set off to itself, and you easily forget that the state capital is only fifteen minutes away by car. The campus is an interesting mixture of ante-bellum and modern.

The main administration building is a white porticoed structure with columns running across the front. It sits on a slight rise along a curving driveway and manages to dominate the main campus. Behind it is the new science center, to its right, a modern building which houses a cafeteria and student center. On the bulletin board of the student center are posters telling about the next meeting of the Black Student Union, as well as a brochure listing the courses offered in their Afro-American curriculum. All over the campus are trees draped with grey-green Spanish moss. To an outsider like myself the moss looked ridiculously deliberate, as if during the night someone carefully draped it over the branches of all the trees.

Once we proved to the staff that we were not radical agitators nor ambitious incompetents, we began to talk with the students. At Tougaloo, as with all but one of the other places, I was given free room in the Upward Bound men's dormitory. Having only a budget of $1.50 per day for room and board, this also meant that I could get to know the students better than if I had stayed in a motel and had arranged formal interview hours.

Up until this point my youth had been more of a hindrance than a help, but I found in talking to the students it was a definite advantage. The prospect of leaving home in a rural area to go away to school is much less formidable to a black student if he can talk to another black who has already done it. Even then it always took time to open up a two-way conversation.

For the first introduction with the "bridge students" (graduated 12th graders) I usually asked the program director to call all of them together for a meeting. I would pass out the outlines and give my talk and ask if there were any questions. Most of the questions were merely polite responses. It was not until later, in the talks with one, two or three students that they would open up and really talk.

Understandably, most of the students were interested in the idea of the program, but very skeptical about the operation. To them (and sometimes even to us) the implementation was shaky. We guaranteed them full financial aid for a college education in a city they had never been a before. We promised to arrange all transportation, from their home town to their new dormitory or home on the West Coast. We proposed this when all the advice they had been given until now was to stay around home and go to school.

For many, leaving home meant that there would be no older brother or sister to take care of the younger children, often in homes where there was no father or no mother. Or it meant that the family could not count on the extra income that the student might contribute if he worked while he went to college nearby. It is not surprising that most were skeptical at first. To the staff, this was the most challenging and exciting part of the summer-talking with the students. It struck me all the more because I was only three years beyond that same decision. Though I occasionally advised someone to stay in the area and go to school because of better local facilities or the family situation, I usually did everything to convince the students that going away to school can be something very important.

It's impossible to do this all summer without feeling that you're pressuring people too much, that you're emphasizing the good and ignoring the bad. But then you realize that all the pressures, both implicit and explicit, lead the students to stay home for school.

Implicitly they are pressured py peers who go to the local college, and by the feeling, probably stronger in rural areas, that they should stay close to their family. More explicitly, the teachers, and more specifically the high school counselors, usually urge that the student stay in the area. I saw cases where this was done when the counselor simply didn't send in the recommendations of students applying to out-of-state colleges, or else warned the parents about the dangers of leaving home too soon, providing college bulletins and applications only from in-state colleges. After several run-ins with assorted high school counselors, I began to look at my efforts as "equal time."

MEANWHILE, back on the road. Towards the middle of July the full realization of what we had committed ourselves, to physically and psychologically, came thudding home with the dull throbbing quality of an empty stomach. Literally. While in Cambridge we had allotted ourselves $1.50 a day for food, drink, and bed. This was under the assumption either that things would improve as we raised more money or that it might be possible to hustle food from unsuspecting friends. Both of these assumptions proved false and nearly fatal.

I found it possible to stay alive on this budget by rising slowly to a breakfast of two (2) eggs, one (1) toast, one (1) coffee, and grits (several). Lunch-dinner-dessert (they were identical), a Whopper Burger and a strawberry shake. Tom Foltz '69 Field Representative in Alabama, had wired frozen chicken dinners to his engine block to avoid spending his $1.50 for dinner in a cafe. On the road, most of us slept in sleeping bags or in the car. By the end of the summer each of us had put between 12,000 and 16,000 miles on our cars.

Though the ridiculously low budget was the worst feature of last summer's program, it was also the best. You knew that everyone else was working under similarly unpleasant conditions, and that no one had more free weekends; a comraderie developed that would sound corny if, in fact, it had not given incentive to everyone.

Because we began the entire program later than we ideally should have, any slow down was potentially detrimental. Eleven people would not have worked from June 6 to September 6 under these conditions unless these factors were operating, or, as I sometimes thought, we were sunstruck.

For the last one fourth of the summer I saw how the other half lived. Working with Rice University in Houston and Loyola in New Orleans, I attempted to do essentially the same thing that FOCUS's western staff had been doing all summer-arranging admissions, financial aid, and living arrangements for a number of students coming in from the west and other parts of the South. I saw how the other half lived in another way--for the first time I was able to live in one room for more than five days, and to eat regular meals.

In Houston, I stayed at the home of a friend. In New Orleans, I stayed in rooms donated to FOCUS by the management of the best downtown hotels. This typified many of the contrasts of the summer: at the beginning I slept in old dormitories and in the car, towards the end, I stayed in the best hotel in New Orleans. This general mood persisted throughout the end of the summer as I visited foundations and businesses lobbying to raise funds for the students. The free lunches that were conned in the process made the earlier starvation more palatable.

ONE OF the fears that we had last spring was that the program might easily become another underground railroad for talented black youths to "escape" the South. This was why the program was designed as an exchange--western students coming South to college, and southern students going West to college. To try to encourage some of last year's students to return to their communities to contribute their skills to the development of that community, we are now trying to recruit as many of last year's students as possible to work with FOCUS in their communities. The program could be no more successful than if next year it is directed primarily by former FOCUS students

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