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Part-Time Adviser Speaks From Experience

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Moreno Valley, Calif.

Salvador Mercado has mixed feelings about California's ban on race and gender preferences in public-college admissions. But as a part-time adviser at Rancho Verde High School, his message to students is clear.

"I don't talk about preferences," said Mr. Mercado, who is a junior at the University of California, Riverside. "I tell them they're competing against other seniors."

Mr. Mercado is part of the university's Early Academic Outreach Program, through which 114 UC Riverside students offer academic counseling, tutoring, campus tours, and mentoring to about 7,800 middle and high school students in the area.

The program targets economically and educationally disadvantaged families, which typically means Hispanic and black students whose college-participation rates lag behind those of their white and Asian-American counterparts.

"In their hearts, the parents want their kids to go to college, but they don't know how," said Javier Hernandez, the director of university's EAOP activities. "That's where we're losing the ballgame."

Rancho Verde Principal Robert V. Nichols said that the UC Riverside presence helps him offer students an exposure to college they might otherwise miss.

"They really want things to succeed," he said of the university. "If I felt that it was phony, I wouldn't play with them."

'On Their Backs'

Mr. Mercado is a great resource for Rancho Verde, his high school alma mater of 1,800 students in Moreno Valley, a growing residential area some 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

For 10 hours each week, he provides services that the school's three guidance counselors, overwhelmed by their 600-student caseloads, cannot always offer.

His meticulous records track the progress made by each of the 80 students with whom he works. "If a kid's not putting forth the effort ... then I'm constantly on their backs," said Mr. Mercado, who was the first member of his family to attend college.

He's also quick to praise the accomplishments of his charges.

When 18-year-old Tamara Michael came to him recently to share a college-acceptance letter, he erupted in a bright smile. "Be proud of yourself, I'm proud of you," he declared. "Now we have to get the financial aid."

But while Mr. Mercado's enthusiasm for getting students into college is almost palpable, he is noncommittal on affirmative action.

Mr. Mercado has bittersweet memories of his acceptance to the University of California, Los Angeles. He said the experience was tainted after a white, female friend who did not get in alleged that he was accepted because he was a member of a minority group. He later chose to attend UC Riverside instead.

"I wanted to say we should get rid of [affirmative action] and show them that we can do it on our own," Mr. Mercado said. His position softened when a college friend and fellow Hispanic asked him how a student whose parents don't speak English can be expected to do well on the verbal section of the SAT.

Today, he falls somewhere in the middle. "We need to level the playing field without making it race-based, or we'll always draw those lines."

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