`Gateway' to Opportunity

Community colleges help immigrants move into the mainstream. LEARNING: CULTURAL IMMERSION

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`I LEARNED my English here'' at Los Angeles City College (LACC), says Asya Nagabedyan. ``I didn't know anything.'' Ms. Nagabedyan, who emigrated from Soviet Armenia five years ago, is now studying child development and accounting at this community college. She also works as a peer adviser to other Armenian immigrant students - helping them choose courses and gain access to college services.

Like Nagabedyan and the students she advises, many immigrants coming to the United States are using community colleges as ``gateways'' into the culture and economy of their new country.

The easy accessibility of such schools and their low cost make them magnets for people working their way into the mainstream of a new society. And the price is right, too. Until 1984, a community college education in California was free. Tuition is now $5 per unit, up to a $50 maximum per semester.

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Between 1978 and 1988, growth in two-year college enrollments nationwide exceeded gains at four-year colleges; two-year enrollments rose 21 percent, while four-year enrollments increased 14 percent.

Increased enrollment among immigrants and minorities at two-year colleges is a significant contributor to this growth, according to the American Council on Education in Washington.

Like most community colleges, LACC draws the majority of its students from within a five-mile radius of the school.

In a residential area near Hollywood, this campus - originally home to the University of California, Los Angeles - is well-suited for a community college.

During its 60-year life span, the college's ethnic diversity has expanded and shifted in relation to the changing community. LACC is the most ethnically diverse of the nine community colleges in the city; pockets of seven different immigrant communities surround the campus.

``It's like a small United Nations,'' says President Edwin Young. Minorities make up 76 percent of the student body: 33 percent are Hispanic, 26 percent Asian, and 17 percent black.

Kenneth Nakano, vice-president of administration at LACC, grew up in this neighborhood and has witnessed its dramatic change. ``Twenty-five years ago the clientele [at LACC] may have been fairly well-educated students. But since we've changed our immigration laws and because we have had a tremendous influx [of immigrants to Los Angeles], ... we're getting a clientele that is not the traditionally prepared.''

These changes present ``tremendous challeges'' to educators, Mr. Nakano says.

``Communicating with these diverse students is a challenge in itself,'' says Ned Doffoney, vice president of academic affairs. Only 35 percent of the students speak English as a native language, and 20 percent have lived in the US less than five years.

A Student Assistance Center was founded in 1988 to provide help in the application and enrollment process. Student workers who speak eight foreign languages help non-English-speaking students apply and enroll in courses. Many take only English initially. ``English-as-a-Second-Language is one of our biggest programs,'' says Fred Piegonski, public information officer.

Many community college students are older than the average college student and a large percentage work. More than 40 percent of LACC students work full-time. To accommodate busy schedules, the college offers day, evening, and Saturday courses.

Several decades ago, in response to shifting demographics and the diversified ethnicity of students, LACC began to alter its curriculum and focus on courses that develop basic skills, Dr. Young says. A Learning Skills Center was established in 1974 to assist students who need such help. ``Students can go in and do individualized work at their own pace,'' Young says.

AT the Learning Skills Center, students are spread out across several rooms in carrels and at tables. Some are quietly conferring with instructors, others are watching educational videos, and still others, connected by headphones to a tape recorder, repeat English words tentatively.

``With the influx of non-native-English speakers, we have taken on the mission of helping these students with English conversation, grammar, reading, and writing,'' says Maryanne Brim, director of the center.

About 14 percent of all students use the services of this department, Ms. Brim says. Some take individually designed courses for credit, doing independent work under the guidance of an instructor. Others come to get extra help and tutoring.

Across the campus, student-support services are the priority at this community college. Academic programs are structured to accommodate limited-English students and counseling is available in a myriad of forms. It's a case of tailoring the traditional educational setting to the individual needs of a particular community. Whenever possible, students who come for personal, vocational, or peer counseling are matched with someone of their own ethnic background.

``We try to foster a multicultural understanding through various kinds of activities,'' President Young says, mentioning international clubs which meet on a regular basis. ``The immigrant students serve as a resource to the native students to learn something about the rest of the world.''

Students aren't the only mosaic on campus. ``Part of our infrastructure is the staff diversity,'' says Mr. Doffoney. ``The faculty and staff represent as many cultures as the students.'' The senior administration itself provides a balanced ethnic representation.

In a computerized accounting class, an Asian professor is teaching a class filled with students whose ethnic backgrounds represent far reaches of the globe. These are serious students with clear individual missions. Regina Leybovish, a Ukrainian, is studying accounting and English. ``I need to find a job in September,'' she says. ``I will work - I hope.

Yanti Gowinatha, who is from Indonesia, already has a full-time job but attends classes here to further his career. ``I finish here,'' he says, ``and I go to work.''

President Young expects Los Angeles City College to continue serving an ethnically diverse student body. ``As long as we're located where we are, it's going to be an exciting challenge for us,'' he says. And, unlike students who attend more homogeneous campuses, LACC students are going to classes in an environment that reflects the direction of the future - a heterogeneous ethnic mix. ``It represents the reality of what the world really is,'' Young says.

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