Young Offenders Get Glimpse of College Life

  • August 6, 2005

HAYWARD - Together, as a pack, they walked along the perimeter road at California State University, East Bay, wearing the navy blue uniforms that mark their present lot in life.

The 16 young men arrived at the hilltop campus Friday morning from another hill to the north: Camp Sweeney, a low-security juvenile detention center in San Leandro.

They came to spend time with incoming freshmen close to their age, to learn about the university - and, maybe, to see if it might be in their future. As the group approached the University Union, a couple of their young hosts ran out to greet them. They led the visitors to a conference room decorated with red and black helium balloons and tablecloths, the school's colors.

"They really fixed this up in here," remarked one 17-year-old detainee as he looked around the room.

For the next four hours, the group would be side by side with 50 teenagers who have spent the past four weeks getting up to speed on college life through the five-week Summer Bridge program. They would hear how some of those students - whom they had met a few days earlier - and others had made it out of some of the very situations they faced.

"Our stories may be different, but our background is still the same," freshman Kevin Randolph, 17, told them after relating the hardships, tragedies and brushes with the law he experienced as a kid growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

For LaToya Goins, a freshman who graduated this spring from Washington High School in Fremont, the service element of the program has been an empowering one. Four weeks ago she arrived on campus knowing nothing and no one, scared about what she had gotten herself into.

But Goins said that as she spent time with the Camp Sweeney kids, she came to realize how well she now knows the university - and the people.

"It lets you know that you've learned something," she said. "You can take what you've learned and turn around and teach someone else."

Marcus Cooper, an outgoing 19-year-old with a quick smile that shows a few gold-capped teeth, took the lead on the campus tour.

"See the top of that big building over there?" he asked the group, pointing to Warren Hall. "That's the president's office. She gets to see the whole Bay."

"I can put myself in their situation," Cooper said, in between campus attractions. He said that after getting kicked out of school in 11th grade, he enrolled in a continuation school and made up his mind to change the direction of his life.

"Just basically, in 12th grade, I put on the seat belt, strapped in and punched the gas," Cooper said. "I took seven college prep classes."

Whether because of their ages or their backgrounds, the two groups from the two different hills meshed easily. Over lunch, a couple of young women led the room in singing "Happy Birthday" to one of the boys, who smiled and covered his face in mild embarrassment.

"Nick," whose real name couldn't be used for this story because of juvenile probation policies, said the trip gave him a better idea of how college works. "To me, it's kind of interesting, because I want to go to college," he said. "You get to walk around, you get to know the campus a little bit."

"It's been good," said "Robert," a 17-year-old from the camp. "I always wanted to try college after graduating from high school - if I could get through it. It kind of pushes me more to try it out, if I have the opportunity to."

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