"Making Stanford Accessible"

San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, August 1, 1996

--Program: Low-income, gifted teens get a taste of what it takes.

By Jim Puzzanghera, Mercury News Staff Writer

Growing up in a single-parent, low-income family in the tiny Mojave Desert community of Newberry Springs, 16-year-old Nico Slate was about as far from Stanford University as you could get in California.

His high school guidance office points students interested in higher education toward community colleges or technical schools, he said, because kids from Newberry Springs don't go to places like Stanford. Slate might change that.


He's spending 5 ˝ weeks on campus this summer as one of 21 participants in the Stanford Youth Environmental Science Program. In its third year, the program introduces gifted, low-income California high school students to environmental issues and future professions in the field. At the same time, the program tries to show the teen-agers that they have what it takes to get to a top university, while teaching them what students in many wealthy school districts have a whole office to teach them—how to apply to Stanford and other upper-echelon schools.

"My whole understanding of what colleges are looking for has improved. It's jumped me way ahead, especially coming from the desert, said Slate, who hopes to be a professor some day. "I wouldn't have known how to apply or what my essay should be like or how to get across what I've learned."


This summer, he and the 20 other participants have been learning a lot. They live and eat at the Lambda Nu house on the western edge of campus, and since arriving June 29 they've been going almost 12 hours a day. They get daily lectures from volunteer Stanford professors; take field trips to places like the university's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove; practice public speaking classes and have writing tutors to help them with their college essays. The participants are told about different fields that have an environmental component, such as law, medicine and even engineering.

All their expenses, about $3,500 per student, are paid by the program through fund-raising, and participants are selected without regard to ethnicity.

"They're intelligent, creative and have great potential. We're just trying to show them that." Said Ana Rowena Mallari, a Stanford graduate and co-director of the program, along with another Stanford alum Michael McCullough.

A staff of 23 current and former Stanford students work on the program, living with the students and helping to teach them. One of the staff members this year is Lourdes Flores, who was a participant in the program in 1994 and is entering her sophomore year at Stanford.

"Before I came to the program, I wasn't even considering Stanford, but Michael and Ana really encouraged me to apply here and other Ivy League universities." She said. The experience that summer helped change the life of Flores, who grew up in Hollister.

Her summer at Stanford was her first away from home, and she returned to high school determined. She helped recruit members to reinvigorate the school's science club and worked on a project to plant oak seedlings around Benito County. Flores, who is considering a major in international relations, decided to become a program staff member this summer so she could help other teenagers from low-income backgrounds experience the same boost.

McCullough helped found the environmental program after starting the similar Stanford Medical Youth Science Program in 1988 for low-income teens interested in careers in medicine. He turned the program over to Stanford when he left for a Rhodes scholarship in 1989. When he returned to the Bay Area as a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco, he and Mallari created the environmental program. He's physically a lot closer to the program now, doing his medical internship in the emergency room at Stanford University Hospital.

It's tremendously emotionally rewarding," he said.

Participant Vanesa Estrada, 17, of Oxnard, wants to help raise awareness about the use of the pesticide methyl bromide in the strawberry fields near her home. She is thinking of a career in environmental health, and is grateful to the program for helping to clarify her future.