Copyright: © 2010 Idaho Statesman Published: 08/04/10

Ryan Crutchfield, Charles Sims and Daejon Moore graduated from three different high schools in Los Angeles. The teens have different career objectives and their lists of prospective colleges contained few of the same names.

But all three ended up at the same university: Boise State.

"At first it was like, Boise - what's out there in Boise?" said Crutchfield, a self-described technology geek who plans to study computer engineering.

A deacon at the teens' church in L.A. suggested they give Boise State a look, and the church subsidized or covered all costs for their visit to campus. West Angeles Church of God in Christ provides extensive educational support for its youth, many of whom are economically disadvantaged.

Boise State was the first college Crutchfield visited.

"It just blew me away," said the 17-year-old, who gushed about the greenery, river rafting and the "Smurf Turf" during a free moment at new student orientation Friday.

Crutchfield's college-bound peers at the predominantly black West Angeles Church have been equally impressed with Boise State - even after visiting public and private colleges in California, Washington and other parts of the country.

Five came to Boise State last year, and nine more are enrolled this fall.

"I knew I wanted to get out of California. I've been there my whole life," said Sims, a 17-year-old graduate of Santa Monica Catholic High School.

What did Sims like best about Boise?

"The air quality," he said emphatically. "The trees, the community, the surroundings and the campus."

Many of the teens from West Angeles Church qualified for merit-based tuition assistance for non-residents through the Western Undergraduate Exchange program.

WUE scholarships allow students in 14 Western states to attend out-of-state colleges at much-reduced cost - in 2009-10, Boise State's out-of-state tuition was $13,868; in-state tuition was $4,864; and the school's approximately 190 WUE students paid $7,296. Scholarships are awarded based on high school GPA and ACT/SAT scores.

"We're getting some high-quality students," said Everardo Torrez, a Boise State enrollment counselor.

Torrez said the students from West Angeles add to the cultural diversity of the student body. Last year, less than 2 percent of the student body was African-American.

seeing a need - and filling it

In early 2008, Deacon John Wilson III of West Angeles Church had an overwhelmingly positive first impression of the Boise campus - but he had some doubts.

"Are black inner-city kids going to come here?" he asked himself. "I was sitting Downtown at PF Chang's, and I was thinking to myself, 'How do I get kids to come here? They're going to think I'm nuts.' "

About four months later, 11 students from West Angeles, juniors and seniors, visited Boise State.

"I brought the pickiest kids - the most critical and intellectual - to see their reaction," Wilson said. "When I took them on that tour, and they were liking it, they said, oh, wow, I was right."

But they weren't sold until Torrez made a presentation in L.A.

"The key was Everardo," said Wilson, a former aerospace engineer. "His admissions presentation was the greatest I've ever seen. ... His love of the school comes through."

Everardo Torrez, who grew up in eastern Idaho and earned his master's in communication at Boise State, makes his pitch to students primarily at high schools.

"The work we've been doing with West Angeles is pretty unique," Torrez said.

But the idea is not new for West Angeles Church, which boasts 15,000 core members, including celebrities such as Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder.

Wilson, who is director of education and enrichment ministry programs, said that church members noticed as far back as the early 1990s that many young members weren't finishing high school and going on to college. Math was identified as one of the obstacles.

"I was an engineer, so the first thing I set up was math after school," Wilson said.

In 2000, the church established a summer enrichment program to help students with algebra, geometry and chemistry. It later partnered with Princeton Review to offer low-cost SAT prep courses.

Wilson began tracking the progress of students headed to college - and made sure they took the next step: a campus visit.

"No matter what a youth says or where a family says they want to send their kid, if they have not visited the school, they won't go there," Wilson said.

For those families who couldn't afford to send their kids to visit college campuses, the church began subsidizing travel.

But they didn't go everywhere, and they focused primarily on small private schools.

Wilson is a D.C. native who went to George Washington University, so the church first looked at schools in the D.C. area, including George Mason, Howard, Catholic, American and Georgetown universities.

"We didn't know much, but we knew our best students could do it ... if I could convince (their parents) of their safety and security," Wilson said.

The success of the first students in D.C. and Atlanta (Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman) led them to look for other parts of the country, including the Northwest. They built a relationship with Seattle Pacific University.

"It took us two years to get a student to want to go to Seattle," said Wilson, explaining that the city's reputation for rain didn't help. "I let the school sell itself. ... It's a very affordable private school."

BOISE STATE quickly sold itself

Affordability is one of the reasons that many from West Angeles attend University of California schools - and it's part of why Wilson decided to scout out Boise State. He says he saw BSU on a list of top colleges in a national magazine in 2007.

"The next week, one of my students said he was interested in Boise State, even though with his grades he probably couldn't get there," Wilson said. "He heard some things from a friend."

A year later, Wilson decided to visit the campus. He showed up unannounced at the admissions office to see if anyone would talk to him.

"I went in there, and they treated me like a king. In fact, they treated me so good, I felt awkward," he said.

The youngest of Wilson's three children - Andrea - was among the West Angeles students who visited BSU last year.

"I was actually opposed to Boise State when my dad brought it to my attention," she said. "Once I got there, I saw Boise is actually a nice college town, and it's not completely boring.

"I never swam in a river before or went tubing down a river before," she added. "You don't get that in Los Angeles."

She said she liked that life seemed slower here, and she could focus on her studies.

"The first day, I was really nervous because it was a culture shock. It was a lot of white people," she said, noting that she became somewhat accustomed to that feeling at Beverly Hills High.

Still, her freshman year was challenging. She said one of the best things she did was join the track team as a walk-on.

"I encourage anybody who applies to any college to get out and get involved in campus," said the 19-year-old, an aspiring dietitian.

The students from West Angeles support each other, but they aren't allowed to room together.

"I want them to get to know other students," Deacon Wilson said.

Daejon Moore, 17, will be a freshman at BSU this fall. He plans to study psychology.

Moore said it was the green - not the blue - that drew him to Boise, though he plans to cheer on the Bronco football team this fall.

"You don't see that much green in certain parts of L.A.," he said. "The people are so friendly, and there's not much traffic."

Katy Moeller: 377-6413


Here is just one of several emails received by Deacon Wilson in response to this article:

"Hello Deacon Wilson,

My name is Eric and I live in Boise. I'm on my lunch break right now, and I happened to grab today's copy of the Idaho Statesman which has the article about you and your work with the children in your church featured on the front page.

I was so moved by this story that I quickly called down to West Angeles COGIC and requested your email address so I could say thank you!

I'm an Idaho native (even grew up on a farm! A true native!), and I love my state, my city and my school (Boise State)! So I think what you're doing with BSU is fantastic, but my appreciation for your work runs so much deeper. I can tell you are a man deeply rooted in your faith and you have a true calling on this Earth to help those around you. That is something that seems to be getting harder and harder to find.

To me your work isn't about race, or even culture. It's about a man who is doing his best to help these wonderful kids be the best that they can be. It's about helping them break down those walls that are put there by society that can make us feel trapped. It's about helping these children achieve great things.

I'm 29, and my wife and I have two small children, and I can only hope to be the kind of man that you obviously are. It's examples like yours that I challenge myself to live by every day!

So thank you again for all of your hard work and dedication! You truly are a special spirit.

Your friend in Boise,

Eric M."