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Erika Rincon Whitcomb with her mother AbbyErika Rincón Whitcomb (left) and her mother, Abby, share a passion for social justice. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Dishing diversity at the dinner table

Abby Rincón and her daughter, Erika, have a great deal in common … including campus jobs helping Berkeley to become more diverse

| 07 May 2009

Back in the 1970s, Abby Rincón was one of just two Latinos at San Lorenzo High School in the East Bay. Her guidance counselor never once suggested college to her; she studied nursing at vocational school instead.

That was some 30 years ago, the dark ages when it comes to ideas about advancing diversity in higher education. Or so one might think. But Rincón's 25-year-old daughter, Erika, can tell you that in some ways not much has changed.

As a college adviser at Richmond High School, Erika Rincón Whitcomb runs into interference from some counselors. They don't always want her to motivate the students — many of whom are from groups underrepresented at universities like Berkeley — to try for college.

"It's not that the kids don't want to go to college," she says. "The problem is that there's no encouragement from the many people in their lives."

This commonality of experience across generations gives the two women a lot to talk about when they sit down for dinner in their El Cerrito home. And when they leave for work in the morning, they share one more thing: They both head to Berkeley, where both work in jobs aimed at increasing diversity on campus.

Abby Rincón is director of diversity for the School of Public Health. Her job for the last 3½ years has been to recruit undergraduates and graduate students from underrepresented groups and advise them on everything from admissions through graduation.

Erika Rincón WhitcombErika Rincón Whitcomb (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Erika Rincón Whitcomb works for the Educational Guidance Center, part of the Center for Educational Partnerships. Assigned to Rich-mond High, she provides students with information on college — when to take the SATs, how to fill out applications, and, perhaps most important, that they really can qualify if they try.

Making college visible

Both women find their work professionally and personally rewarding, in part because they bring to it a deep knowledge and drive born of their family history.

Abby Rincón's parents were migrant workers from Mexico, for whom jobs meant survival and even finishing high school was a luxury that none in the community could afford. She knows very well the sacrifices and struggles required of the students she recruits to come to Berkeley and their families, because she lived them. Her own parents never finished high school, and none of her extended family even talked about college when she was growing up.

"College was not part of what I saw," she says.

She became a nurse, working with migrant workers. And then she landed at CSU Chico — the first person in her family to go to college — after realizing the limits of her nursing license. More schooling in community health education, she saw, would let her do more for the well-being of more people.

Erika, on the other hand, was raised to know she'd be college-bound from just about her first breath. But she also was well aware of where she came from.

"My mother has always had a passion for helping people who were the most vulnerable — and she passed it on," she explains. "I was exposed to issues early. I know about inequity. I always knew I wanted to work in social justice."

That both women ended up at Berkeley can be traced back to their family story as well. Abby's father, Icidro Rincón, left school after sixth grade to work in the fields, but later used the skills he acquired during a stint in the Air Force to raise his family up from its humble beginnings. Ending up in the East Bay, he found a job sorting and delivering mail at UC Berkeley for 28 years.

Sometimes he'd bring young Abby on his rounds, and she got to feel at home on campus. When she decided to pursue a master's in public health — after spending three years working in a migrant- worker clinic in the middle of a Butte County peach orchard — she headed to Berkeley's School of Public Health, graduating with an M.P.H. in 1986.

And now she works there, after some 20 years with University Health Services. Her job as diversity director was created in 2005 to help the school adjust to the demographic changes that California is undergoing, and to the reality that underrepresented communities suffer more than their fair share of public-health problems.

"My dad's a huge Cal fan, and still comes to football games," Abby says. "When I got a job here, he was happy. When Erika got one, he was ecstatic. I do think he takes credit."

Social mobility and the good life

Erika's path took her from Contra Costa College to UCLA, where she got involved with a group called STOMP, which did outreach to help community-college students make the leap to four-year schools.

As a transfer student herself, she loved the work — and gravitated toward the outreach job with Berkeley's Educational Guidance Center after graduating from UCLA in 2005 and coming home to El Cerrito. Like her mother, she intends to go on to graduate school — in public policy.

After a year working at Richmond High, where many students come from low-income families and may be from the first generation in their family to consider college, Erika says she realizes that when she was growing up she had no idea how lucky she was.

"I find myself grateful for having that exposure at a very young age, and family support for the value of education," she says. "It's so important for social mobility and for accessing a good life."

Both Erika and her mother daily experience the difficulties facing students who are trying to break out of their family or cultural patterns, and both feel lucky to share a dinner table where they can vent their frustrations and offer support. Adding to the conversations is Abby's husband, Ruben Lizardo, who works on economic- and educational-equity issues with an Oakland public-policy group.

"We are working against institutional barriers and narrow thinking, and we get home after some days and it's, 'I can't believe what happened today,' " says Abby.

One night the subject was a counselor at Richmond High who had tried to keep college advisers from doing a presentation to a class for young mothers and mothers-to-be. Recounts Erika: "He said, 'I can't believe they're wasting their time going to pregnancy class. Who are they kidding?'   She finds that attitude all too common among some teachers and administrators at Richmond High, where only 31 percent of the students even complete the courses they need to qualify for college.

"I think a lot of people believe we only need to get information to the kids who are already on a college track, not the ones who aren't. But those are precisely the kids who need information," Erika says. And, she adds, she's already been contacted by one young woman in the pregnancy class who's very interested in going to college.

Another night, the conversation might revolve around obstacles faced by Abby's public-health students — like the one whose parents were deported just before classes started, after living in the United States for 25 years and buying a house. The student had to take out loans to get through school and to send money to the parents in Mexico, Abby says.

Or they might talk about the student who can't spend weekends at the library, because she goes home to Napa to help her mother clean houses.

"If I could make it, you can," Abby Rincón tells the students.

"It helps me to hear what Erika says," Abby tells a visitor to her University Hall office, "because I think it's a miracle if her students get high-school degrees. If they actually set foot on a college campus, that's the next miracle.

"She is trying to open the doors there. And that's what I'm doing here."