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From the Barrio to the Laboratory

Four Hispanic students at MIT are a long way from their high school on the Texas border

ALBERT MARTINEZ had never even heard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) until he was a junior in high school back in El Paso, Texas.

Now the 17-year-old Mexican citizen is completing his first year at MIT along with three Mexican-American classmates from his high school. He is the first person in his family to attend college.

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When five students from El Paso's Ysleta High School were accepted to MIT last year, it made national news.

MIT had never accepted so many students from one public school. Furthermore, Ysleta is a poor school near the Mexican border with a 95 percent Hispanic population. Only 30 percent of its graduates attend college.

"We didn't even have AP [advanced placement] courses at our school for math and science," Mr. Martinez says. "Almost everybody else [here at MIT] came from [public] magnet schools or private schools."

Nationwide, only 18 percent of college-age Hispanics are enrolled in four-year colleges, compared with 34 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks, according to the American Council on Education in Washington. The high school dropout rate for Hispanics, at more than 35 percent, is higher than those for other ethnic groups.

DURING the past several years, many colleges have intensified their efforts to attract Hispanic students through increased scholarships, aggressive recruiting, and improved support services.

John Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says his university is now taking the same approach to recruiting Hispanics as it did to recruiting blacks in the 1970s and 1980s. All Hispanics offered admission to the university receive personalized letters from current Hispanic students. Once they enroll, students can find support through a student group, La Sociedad Hispanics.

Many schools have hired Hispanic recruitment officers to make trips to the West and Southwest. They often go into Latino families' homes and make a more favorable impact if they speak Spanish and understand cultural differences.

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At the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Assistant Director of Admissions Maria Llopiz greets callers with a voice-mail message in Spanish. Ms. Llopiz is working with local Hispanic groups to identify applicants for the school's four new full-tuition scholarships.

Yet recruitment and retention of Hispanic students at colleges nationwide has been only partly successful. Cultural and economic barriers persist.

Many Hispanic parents have not experienced the economic benefits of higher education in America. In the Hispanic culture, family is often given the highest priority. Many parents are opposed to sending their children - especially girls - far from home, even for an education.

Although five El Paso students were accepted by MIT last year, only four enrolled at the school. Alicia Ayala went to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) instead.

"She wanted to leave with her parents' blessing, but they wouldn't give it to her," says Enrique Arzaga, one of the MIT students from El Paso.

At the end of their senior year in high school, Mr. Arzaga helped MIT officials communicate with Ms. Ayala after her parents refused to let any correspondence from MIT get through to her.

"That's real common in central Mexico," Martinez says. "Parents won't usually let a girl go away to live somewhere else until she's married."

Back in El Paso, Ayala is majoring in metallurgy at UTEP. Sometimes she wonders what it would be like to be at MIT instead. "But I put it into the back of my head," she says. She's come to terms with the fact that her parents didn't want their 18-year-old daughter going out into the world so young.

"There's always graduate school down the road," Ayala says. She plans to apply to MIT and continue her metallurgy studies after graduating from UTEP.

EVEN without parental resistance, some Hispanic college students find it difficult to adjust to attending school far from home.

David Villarreal, another El Paso student at MIT, remembers having second thoughts about leaving Texas after he was accepted to the school last spring. He was offered a full scholarship at UTEP. "I started thinking about whether I wanted to go away from home," he says. "But my parents encouraged me to go. I think I might have regrets if I'd stayed in Texas for school."

Unlike his classmates, Mr. Villarreal chose not to come to MIT early for the eight-week Project Interphase, an orientation program for incoming minority students. "I wasn't ready to leave home yet," he says. "It was really hard for me at first."

But Martinez and the other El Paso students who came for Interphase say it was a helpful way to introduce themselves to the new environment. "We immersed ourselves gently," Martinez says. "That really helped."

Many of the Hispanic students at MIT stick together and have helped each other adjust to their new environment. A Mexican-American support group on campus has about 70 members. "They're my closest friends here," Villarreal says.

Like many Hispanic students who come from impoverished public schools, Villarreal felt unprepared initially for rigorous college academics. "I thought I was going to fail a couple of courses," he says. "But I didn't." MIT's Office of Minority Education offers tutoring for students, and he went there for help several times during the first semester.

The four El Paso students are beginning to realize that their decision to come to MIT will open doors to their future. They will spend the summer working at Texas Instruments in Dallas. "We've got guaranteed jobs for the summer," Villarreal says in amazement.

Arzaga and Martinez recently returned to Ysleta High School as recruiting representatives for MIT. They encouraged the students in their hometown high school to think about applying to MIT. "We try to tell them to weigh everything," Martinez says. "It's going to be hard - it's going to be cold. But all the hardships are worth it. I try to tell them not to let anything stand in their way."

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