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By Robert Gillespie
Venola Mason '01 doesn't remember the window in her high school classroom shattering, drilled by a bullet.
Mason shrugged off the shot as "no big deal," according to Los Angeles Times journalist Miles Corwin, who spent a year shadowing Mason and other African-American and Latino high achievers in advanced placement English at Crenshaw High School in South-Central Los Angeles. Corwin chronicled their challenging senior year of high school in his book And Still We Rise, which depicts South-Central as an area where fathers all too often are absent and single mothers like Mason's work two jobs to pay the electric bill and the rent. Gangbangers roam the high school campus and halls, cash-strapped classes sometimes make do without textbooks, kids face scorn for being smart or "acting white." In the midst of all these obstacles the students work, sometimes while on paying jobs and often with tunnel vision, to prepare themselves for SATs and advanced placement exams. All for a chance to go to college.
Back home in Los Angeles last winter to work on a Jan Plan project, Mason didn't remember the bullet, but she does remember the days when her mother worked two jobs, carried water from a neighbor's spigot to wash her children and gathered scraps of wood and branches to cook on a hibachi. She also remembers her high school English teacher Anita Moultrie, who, Mason said, stressed "basically, competition with the rest of America." These gifted and talented children of unequal opportunity knew they were competing for admission to college with students from affluent neighborhoods with well-funded schools.
Mason says she didn't have a specific college or university in mind--she applied to 15--but she was impressed with the way the Colby admissions people kept on her. "Every day I was getting stuff in the mail and calls. I thought, 'These people are really aggressive,'" she said. When she visited the campus in March 1997, the bucolic setting, the Maine woods, the remove from the congestion and crime of South-Central and the friendly Colby people won her over.
Accustomed to skirts and sandals in L.A., she knew when she arrived on Mayflower Hill the next fall that she'd have to live with cold and snow. She didn't anticipate getting into outdoor activities or sports or even having much of a social life. But she knew that in Colby's small classes she would get to know her professors. Topping her list of teachers, who she says are even more impressive than she anticipated, sociology professor Cheryl Townsend Gilkes "has got me into learning just to learn." Now Mason looks at journal articles on her own, tracking down connections, finding out who she is and what she needs.
Her recent Jan Plan developed from a paper she wrote in Gilkes's course African-American Women and Social Change. Calling on video skills learned in a junior high magnet school, Mason turned interviews with three South-Central men into a documentary examining how they fared with family and education, how the criminal justice system affected them, how they coped with unemployment.
"I was trying to see how close my conclusions in the paper and the conclusions of sociologists were to people's lives," she said. Validating her research, "The first guy hit right on the dime," Mason said. "I was a kind of expert."
Mason has worked in Colby's admissions office, coordinates programs for the African-American Studies, is a research assistant for Spanish professor Betty Sasaki and serves as a peer mentor in a new program for first-year students. While she wishes for more diversity on campus, she realizes that groups tend to hang together and sees the benefits of the mentoring project. "You pair up and just be a friend. I had an international student, who I probably wouldn't have met any other way," she said.
"I've always done stuff--it always got me to where I need to be," Mason said. Even so, looking ahead to the job market, she worries that she has no internships on her résumé. But then, how many students have published an essay in The Christian Science Monitor? "Somebody at the Monitor is a friend of a friend who said, 'It sounds like she could write an article for us.' Okay," Mason said, characteristically understating her accomplishments. "I just did it."
A Spanish major aiming for a career in business and financial services, she studied one semester in Cuernavaca, Mexico and another in Salamanca, Spain. In between she spent a semester at Clark University in Atlanta but is quick to say she never thought about transferring. "I love Colby. Colby has taken me in and treated me like a grandchild," she said. "I can go into any office on campus and they say, 'Hi Venola!' Even the secretaries know me."
"I don't think I've grown as much personally as I have culturally," she said, reflecting on her time at the College. "I knew before I got here there were things I'd have to put on hold. I knew there weren't going to be many black people. People tell me, 'Venola, you'll never get a husband!' But you make decisions, and I can live with it." She's inspired, she said, "just to learn and be a better person."
Mason downplays her role in And Still We Rise as she downplays her own determination. In fact, until she read the book she didn't know about the lives her high school classmates lived outside of class. She didn't know Olivia had no parents and bounced from foster home to living in her car to jail.
"You'd just never think that any of that was going on," Mason said. Recently she saw Olivia, a business major at Babson College, at a black solidarity conference at Yale. As Mason wrote in the Monitor, "Being at Colby . . . has helped me realize that there is an entire world waiting for me to embrace it. I have grown tremendously since my departure from Los Angeles and it hurts to see some people at home in the same place they were when I left."
HOW SHOULD WE TEACH?
Small Triumphs: Alex Quigley '99 finds reason for both hope and despair in the Mississippi Delta
A Ray of Hope: Brittany Ray '93 inspires where she found her inspiration
An Education CEO: Robert Furek '65 brings accountability to Hartford public schools
Charting Success: James Verrilli '83 directs charter school turn-around in Newark
Perspectives on Reform: Colby experts discuss reform and the purpose of education
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