Student impostors get a ‘D’ " for deception
When David Vanegas was going to Rice University in Houston, school officials say, he gravitated to large lecture classes where he wouldn’t stand out. At mealtimes, he never had his ID card and relied on friends to let him into the dining hall. In the evenings, he persuaded students to let him stay overnight in their dorm rooms.
But his schoolmates began to notice odd things about him, like he never seemed to have any homework. Then in September of his second year at Rice, one friend discovered that Vanegas had used someone else’s e-mail address to create his student Facebook page and challenged Vanegas to prove he was a student.
Vanegas couldn’t. His career at the Texas university was over. Now 20, he is scheduled to go on trial in June on charges of stealing $3,678.74 in university food.
“He said the reason he did this was that his mother was ill and he didn’t think she could stand the disappointment of his not being a Rice student,” said university spokesman B.J. Almond. “Apparently he was a very smooth operator. How he could do it for a year I don’t know.”
Student impostors are infrequent, but they have popped up in recent years at universities across the United States, including Princeton, Yale and the University of Southern California.
In May, Stanford University discovered that 18-year-old Azia Kim of Fullerton, Calif., had been posing as a student and living in campus residence halls for eight months.
Kim joined the ROTC at nearby Santa Clara University, attended classes on military history and tactics and received more than $1,000 worth of uniforms and other gear.
An Army spokesman called it a “harmless prank,” but Stanford police investigated her campus stay and forwarded their findings last week to the Santa Clara County district attorney.
It is well known that some job applicants puff up their resumes by claiming degrees they didn’t earn. And some students have won admission under false pretenses, like Lon Grammer, who was a month from graduating from Yale in 1995 when school officials learned he had submitted forged transcripts from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., that raised his grades from a C to an A average.
But what motivates someone to go to school and attend classes without any prospect of getting credit?
Jerald Jellison, a former University of Southern California psychology professor who specialized in the study of lies, said some charlatans take on a new identity to hide a criminal past. But impostors such as Vanegas typically begin their charade to win approval from someone important, such as their parents.
“The first lie is a relatively small lie,” said Jellison, who left USC last year to work as a management consultant. “Once you tell that lie, you have to tell more lies to support that initial lie. Once you get started down that road, it really is impossible to go back until you are found out completely.”
Denise Pope, a lecturer in Stanford’s School of Education, said the deceit often starts in high school, when a student facing enormous pressure to get into an elite university might lie about being accepted.
“They literally can’t bear to tell the truth,” said Pope. “These kids are lying in high school about where they are going to college because they are embarrassed.”
Kim and her family have yet to speak publicly, but some of her peers believe that family demands and social pressure prompted her deception.
Whatever their motives, impostors such as Kim and Vanegas exploit the open atmosphere of college, where young students, living on their own for the first time, are surrounded by new faces.
In the dorms, overnight guests are common. Students often stay with their boyfriends or girlfriends, sometimes for days. Friends may visit from out of town and attend a few classes. On occasion, students who flunk out remain on campus for fear of returning home. But to pose as a student for months or years requires a special talent for deceit — and good fortune.
“The problem with telling a lie is you have to remember all the lies you told,” said Jellison, author of the book “I’m Sorry, I Didn’t Mean To, and Other Lies We Love to Tell.” “There are a hundred tests a day. Some are easy and you can tell an easy lie, but some are difficult. It takes luck and cunning.”
It didn’t take long for Kenneth Foster’s luck to run out at USC.
University officials say he arrived in January 2005, began attending classes and hung out at Somerville Place in Fluor Tower residence hall.
Calling himself “Gianluca Velissariou,” Foster said he was an 18-year-old transfer student and biology major on a track scholarship, and he quickly made friends among the freshmen. When he said he was having roommate trouble in his own residence hall, the Fluor students let him stay with them.
About two months into the semester, some of his new friends became suspicious and decided to check him out on Google. Searches for his name and his high school track record came up empty.
But “Velissariou” had mentioned his sister’s name, and a search for her led to his photo — a mug shot attached to a 2003 Crime Stoppers bulletin from North Carolina University at Chapel Hill. It said Kenneth Leon Foster, then 20, was wanted in 2003 in connection with the theft of a car from a student.
The USC students called police, who escorted Foster from campus.
In the mid-1960s, NBC television aired the short-lived series “Hank” about a college “drop-in” who is so determined to get an education at “Western University” that he dons various disguises and goes to class impersonating absent students.
“He’ll get his degree, his Phi Beta Key — and get ’em both for free. That’s Hank!” went the theme song. Hank is nabbed in the final episode but receives a full scholarship because of his academic skills and his speed on the running track.
In real life, things didn’t turn out so well for James A. Hogue.
Hogue was serving time in a Utah prison for stealing bicycles when he applied to Princeton. He called himself “Alexi Indri-Santana” and said he was a self-educated ranch hand who trained as a long-distance runner and herded cattle in a canyon known as “Little Purgatory.” He named his horse Good Enough.
Princeton admitted him in 1988 on the basis of his “unique and impressive life story,” said a university official.
After his acceptance, Hogue asked to defer enrollment for a year. Only later did Princeton learn that he was still in prison.
As a student, “Indri-Santana” prospered. He made the track team, won two 5,000-meter races and placed in several others. But his success was his undoing. At a meet near the end of his sophomore year, a Yale student recognized him from Palo Alto, Calif., where he had been caught posing as a high school student at age 26.
By the time he was caught at Princeton, he was 31 — a decade older than he had claimed.
A court ordered him to pay back the $21,000 Princeton gave him in financial aid. He made two $50 payments and then stopped, said university spokeswoman Cass Cliatt.
In 1996, Hogue turned up at Harvard, where he got a job at the university’s mineralogical museum but was arrested after police, acting on a tip, found 100 gemstones worth $50,000 in his apartment.
Even then, he was still drawn to campus life.
Later that year, he was arrested again at Princeton, where he was calling himself “Jim MacAuthor,” posing as a graduate student and sleeping and eating at the graduate college.
“We suspect that he knew people at the grad college,” Cliatt said, “but we don’t know how long he had been there.”
For David Vanegas, hanging around Rice University was not about hiding from his past but about living up to his family’s expectations.
He had just turned 19 when he started visiting the Houston campus in the fall of 2005. University officials described him as likable and exceedingly polite. Nearly all 3,000 undergraduates at Rice live on campus, creating a close sense of community. Vanegas said he lived off campus, but his newfound friends often let him stay in their rooms.
“It sounded like he had a network of friends who were willing to help him out when he needed a favor,” said Almond, the Rice spokesman. “It’s part of the residential system of Rice. You feel like you’re a family when you’re here.”
The university is not treating Vanegas like family now.
His lawyer, Enrique Gomez, said Rice is being harsh in pressing a felony charge. Vanegas denies stealing anything, he said.
The evidence includes a photo of Vanegas in the cafeteria taken by a former friend. But Gomez says prosecutors have offered no evidence of specific items that Vanegas allegedly stole, the dates he allegedly took them or their supposed value. Instead, the university is assuming he ate every meal there and is charging the maximum price.
“The extent of the state case is that he went to the cafeteria and ate some food,” Gomez said. “There is no proof.”
Vanegas, who comes from a poor family, meant no harm, Gomez said.
“He just wanted his mother to be proud, and he socialized with the people at Rice,” Gomez said. “Maybe he used bad judgment, but there was no ill intent.”
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