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African American admissions coordinator urges teens to set their sights high

STANFORD -- Although she's only 29, Julie Taylor, associate director of undergraduate admissions, has a long track record when it comes to recruiting African American students.

Even as a teenager at New Orleans' prestigious Benjamin Franklin High School - a public magnet school in one of the city's wealthiest areas - she was reaching out to younger kids in black neighborhoods, urging them to come and check out the school.

“Franklin is a wonderful place, but when I was there, it was only 10 percent black, and it was also in a part of New Orleans where blacks didn't live,” says Taylor, who keeps a poster of her alma mater in her office.

“It seemed odd to me that the school was not more reflective of the city's population,” she says, “so I used to go out to visit middle schools in the city, to encourage other black students to come to Franklin, too.”

Now, as coordinator of African American recruitment in Stanford's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Taylor flies back each year to Benjamin Franklin - and to nearly 70 other high schools in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. - to spread the word about Stanford.

She's still urging African American students to set their educational sights high. Only now, instead of convincing them to cross town for their education, she must convince them to cross the country.

“In some ways, the geographic profile of our African American applicants is more similar to that of whites than Asian Americans and Chicanos,” says Taylor, who earned her bachelor's degree in English from Stanford in 1988 and joined the admissions staff in 1989.

“Three-quarters of potential black applicants live east of the Mississippi, while Asian and Chicano populations are more concentrated in the West. So our biggest challenge with academically outstanding African Americans - as with Eastern students in general - is to convince them and their parents that Stanford is worth traveling far from home.”

Continuing challenge

Attracting significant numbers of qualified African American students has been a continuing challenge at Stanford since the first black students arrived on campus in the late 1960s.

Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1975, Stanford's freshman class was 17 percent minority, compared to 45 percent this year. In the same time, though, the proportion of African Americans in each freshman class has held relatively steady at 6 to 8 percent. (Blacks make up about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.)

“There's not been a huge change in the percentage of African American students here, and that's been frustrating,” Taylor acknowledges.

Taylor is especially concerned about the falling number of qualified African American applicants from public high schools.

Aside from providing fewer academic enrichment programs for their students, she says, many public schools are now so financially strapped that they are providing only minimal college advising, at best.

“At private high schools, the counselors usually are familiar with the variety of college admission programs and make sure that their students get their applications in on time. But at many public schools, the resources for that kind of supervision just aren't there,” she says.

“I recently went to El Cerrito High School, in the East Bay, and they have one-and-a-half counselors, which means a student-to-counselor ratio of 1,000 to one! I'm afraid that there is a widening gap between the kinds of opportunities and information available to students at private schools and those at public schools - even those that are considered top public schools.”

Taylor is hopeful that Stanford's increased efforts to recruit top students of all backgrounds - including the adoption of an early decision admissions program for applicants beginning next fall - will have a positive effect on the number of African American students deciding to enroll at Stanford.

Under early decision, applicants who commit in advance to attending Stanford if admitted can have their admissions decisions back within six weeks. The new timetable will allow Taylor and her colleagues to spend more time working to increase the yield of admits still considering other schools.

The speeded-up application process also will allow Taylor to spend more time traveling in the crucial spring months, talking to high school juniors, and even sophomores, just as they are beginning to think about the college application process.

Using names, addresses, self-reported grade point averages and PSAT scores supplied by the College Board, Taylor and her colleagues have tailored their travel schedules in recent years to focus on schools with the largest potential pools of highly qualified applicants. Last fall, the admissions staff also sent postcards out to the most promising students in advance, to let them know when they would be visiting.

Admissions staffers have been hosting more regional evening meetings as well, allowing prospective students and their parents to attend and ask questions together. This year's meeting in Washington, D.C., for example, was held at Stanford in Washington. The program featured talks by Dean of Admissions James Montoya and current enrolled students.

“Because of our special efforts, we saw more people of color in the audiences at the evening meetings this year,” Taylor says, “so that was really gratifying.”

What does she tell African American applicants and their parents about Stanford?

“I talk about what my own criteria were in choosing a university, back when I was in high school,” she says. “I tell them I wanted a school with a great academic reputation. I wanted to be in or near a big city. I wanted a university with a diverse population, and I wanted a place that my family could afford.

“Stanford was all of those things - and it gave me the best financial aid offer of any school to which I applied.”

Providing stability

In addition to her work at the Undergraduate Admissions Office, Taylor has served for the past three years as resident fellow at Mirrielees House, allowing her to become friends with many of the students she first met on paper.

A total of 286 students live in the apartments, about half of them African American, Mexican American, Native American or Asian American.

“One of my resident assistants, Lorraine Dickson, went to George Washington Preparatory High School in South Central Los Angeles. I remember reading her application,” Taylor says, smiling. “There are a lot of black students at Mirrielees; even many who don't live there come to visit a lot.

“The first African American class that I admitted graduated last year,” she adds, pointing to a cherished photo of the group on her bookshelf. “They gave me a kente cloth sash at the black graduation ceremony.”

Taylor shares her resident fellow duties, and her life, with Blair Bowman, a 1991 Stanford Law School graduate who now serves as interim director of the Black Community Services Center (BCSC).

Together, they've worked hard to make the large residence a more closely knit community. Last year, Bowman taught an in-house seminar on freedom of speech on college campuses, and their residence staff organized a program called “Faculty and Food on the Town” which paired residents with selected faculty members for dinner at popular local restaurants.

In addition, Taylor and Bowman's Dead Week “cookie bake-a-thons” have become house legend.

“We're talking 12 batches or more,” Taylor says with a laugh. “We open the doors and the cookie smell goes up the elevator shafts, and before we know it we have dozens of people in our apartment.

“I figure students are more likely to open up and talk about their academic dilemmas or personal problems if they've been to our apartment for one of our cookie bakes.”

The young couple has worked especially hard to provide stability for the African American student community, which has been troubled in recent years by budget uncertainties and repeated staff turnover at the Black Community Services Center.

The latest blow came in November, when eight young African American women students, including three residents of Mirrielees, were involved in a freeway accident after their van was sideswiped by another driver. One of the students, sophomore Jessica Williams, was killed.

“I was in Chicago, visiting schools, when Blair called to say that one of our students had died, and that it was Jessica,” Taylor recalls. “I hadn't spent much time with her in the house, but I had read her application, and I knew her sister, Jennifer, who was a student here, so I had a personal sense of loss.”

After the accident, Taylor and Bowman flew to the funeral services in Los Angeles with two of the resident assistants, and helped to finance the trip for others who were driving. They also tried to work out academic extensions for some of the students most affected by the tragedy.

“We tried to be there without being too intrusive,” Taylor says. “For example, we had little cards printed with the news and slipped them under each resident's door, and we had consultants from Counseling and Psychological Services come in to talk about grieving.

“Jessica's roommate later told me that she hadn't realized how strong the safety net is here, until the accident happened. It's something she's really come to appreciate about this place.”

Taylor is now hard at work reading some of the more than 15,000 applications that have flooded into the Admissions Office this year, up nearly 5 percent over last year.

Fortunately, she says, her resident fellow work only enhances her role in admissions.

“Now that I'm a resident fellow, I can have relationships with Stanford students, from which to draw stories in my high school presentations. And if I need answers to questions, I have this pool of students at my fingertips.”

This spring, for the third year in a row, Mirrielees will host a group of visiting teenagers from the Compton Unified School District in Southern California, to give them a taste of Stanford and college life.

With luck, there will be some future Stanford students among them. And Taylor, for one, can't wait.



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