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Empowering Minority Youth

Claire Gaudiani aims to show ninth-graders the link between knowledge and power. INTERVIEW: CONNECTICUT COLLEGE PRESIDENT

WHEN Claire Gaudiani became president of Connecticut College last year, she had the word ``philanthropy'' on her mind. So she created a program in response to a national distress signal: The pool of minority college applicants is dwindling. According to the American Council on Education, 36 percent of Hispanic high-school graduates enrolled in college in 1976. In 1986, the most recent year for which statistics are available, only 29 percent did. Similarly, 33 percent of black high-school graduates enrolled in college in 1976; ten years later, that figure had dropped to 29 percent.

Starting Monday, 100 minority ninth-grade students from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York will come to this liberal arts college for three weeks of academics and campus life. Called the Connecticut College Minority Students Summer Advancement Program, it is designed to heighten minority students' self-esteem and encourage them to aspire to college. The concept isn't new, but Gaudiani has put several unique spins on the idea.

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In her office, overlooking the lush green of this scenic college off Long Island Sound, President Gaudiani talked about her philosophy of giving.

``Many minority kids don't see the relationship between knowledge and power,'' she says with equal stress on ``knowledge'' and ``power'' as if they were education passwords. ``School is often remedial, and remedial education by its very name is disempowering.''

In the minority advancement program, teens will develop an area of expertise through a nonremedial, hands-on approach. ``We're going to take them running silent and running deep into a field, letting them really acquire expertise and begin to sense the relationship between knowledge and power and understand that that can keep happening - and it does keep happening - when you invest in yourself in education. You become more powerful; you don't just become more educated,'' Gaudiani says.

She cites her own daughter's experience of taking a course in marine biology. ``She had privileged knowledge - knowledge that her father and I didn't have and her brother didn't have - and it made her feel powerful even though she's the youngest one in the family,'' she recounts.

``As the students go out and do that kind of knowledge acquisition, we hope they'll come away with a case study of their own on what it's like to feel like you have something that you value and that others admire you for,'' she says. ``This is all hooked up with self esteem.''

In the program, high school teachers accompany six of their students and teach alongside college professors in a specific area: computer science, coastal marine biology, religion as a social force, or music and perception. The fact that teachers, not tests, have identified the teens is important, says Gaudiani.

But even so, the teachers are not bringing their top students. Unlike most elite liberal arts colleges, which concentrate on the top 10 percent of minorities in high schools, this program is sniffing out the second and third tiers of minorities - those who have the potential to succeed in college, but are not distinguishing themselves in high school.

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WITH minority-background students, sometimes all but the top five percent are written off for selective higher education, says Gaudiani. As a nation, ``we can't afford to do that. It's not only morally unjustified, but it's also - in terms of the national needs - crazy. We are losing Einsteins and Saul Bellows and a wide range of gifted people in a whole range of fields who will never see the light of day because they were born in a barrio or in a ghetto. We have to ... be sure that those people can find themselves and find the way to express their gift,'' says Gaudiani. She raised money for the program from foundations, individuals, southeastern Connecticut businesses, and others.

Why target 14- and 15-year-olds? Because ninth-graders are at a formative stage of their personality, says Gaudiani. ``They begin to decide what kind of people they're going to be.

``It's particularly important to focus on this age range because kids have been through a lot of general education through grammar school, and they may not understand what it means to go deep,'' she continues. The exciting part of learning is delving into areas where there aren't a lot of answers, she says; you ask questions and pursue answers that create more questions.

``Young people at this age want to feel powerful, and they explore various ways of feeling powerful,'' says Gaudiani. ``Perhaps pieces of life like `wilding' are ways of exploring being powerful and they're destructive and dangerous, and they compromise lives.''

Often, young people in disadvantaged environments don't see the link between education and becoming a powerful person. And that is a ``very dynamic relationship,'' she says.

Gaudiani is the first graduate of Connecticut College to become its president. A specialist in 17th-century French literature, she comes here from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a senior fellow in Romance languages and acting associate director of its institute for management and international studies.

In talking about how the minority program came about, she mentions the college's history in advancing minority students, mainly through Upward Bound programs in the '70s.

Gaudiani also translates a previous experience of her own into the program - that of Academic Alliances, a successful project she founded that brings together scholars and all levels of teaching faculty in the major disciplines. ``I had seen school and college faculty work together, discipline by discipline, and enhance their own attachment to discipline as well as enhancing learning by their students, so it seemed a natural to put those two elements together and get teachers of minority students and college teachers together,'' she says.

Also important is the idea of a peer group. ``[We] realized that we could probably intensify the final outcome if we could bring students together as a team to have a `mountaintop' experience rather than letting that mountaintop experience be an isolating experience,'' she says. So each student will have gone through the program with a teacher and other students they will see in their high school for the next several years. Parents will also visit the campus and consider the possibilities of higher education for their children.

IN dealing with high-risk teens whose parents may have never completed high school, let alone college, the program provides a personal touch of guidance known as mentoring. It dovetails research that shows the positive impact mentoring has had on disadvantaged, minority youngsters. Thus, in addition to their teachers, the teens will have alumni mentors, most of whom are minorities, that live near their hometowns. They will have undergraduate, on-campus mentors as well.

There's a post-program component as well: After the summer, the teens will return to campus twice a year for reunions. They will also stay in contact with their teachers and undergraduate and alumni mentors throughout high school; some will even serve as mentors in future programs.

Gordon Estabrooks, a biology teacher at Boston Latin School for 22 years, says he and his students are looking forward it.

``The good part is that I'll have kids be there with me in the summer and be able to follow them through the school year,'' says Mr. Estabrooks. ``I know the children are enthused, and I have really good feelings for it.''

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