Faking College

A student impersonator "attends" Rice University for a year

Vanegas is not Rice's first impersonator in the last few years. Almost four years ago, the Houston Press wrote about Rodrigo Fernando Montano, a 24-year-old Houstonian who spent almost a month on the Rice campus ["The Pretender," by Jennifer Mathieu, November 14, 2002]. Vanegas, of course, lasted much longer than that. But Taylor sees more striking differences.

"Montano didn't understand how to become a student," recalls Taylor. "He thought if he just started hanging out here, went to classes and showed up at a dorm, he would become a student. He actually went to the track coach and got shoes and stuff; he thought he was trying out for the team. In his mind, as far as we could determine, that's what he actually thought he needed to do."

Even after his arrest, Montano always maintained that he was a real Rice student (and his mother backed him up). He even inadvertently turned himself in when he visited the registrar's office to complain about problems. Of course, there was no record of him.

Starting last fall, David Vanegas began eating in Rice's dining halls, hanging out with students and attending classes.
Courtesy of Rice University Police Department
Starting last fall, David Vanegas began eating in Rice's dining halls, hanging out with students and attending classes.

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Rice University

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Vanegas, on the other hand, was fully cognizant of his actions -- and incredibly tactful, says Taylor. "He had a lot of stories; he would say, 'I'm a graduate student' or 'I'm a whatever.' It was hard for someone to put a finger on what his status was."

So over the course of last year, Vanegas circulated around campus, forming new "deep acquaintanceships." He met people outside of Baker and, according to many, barely visited the college after a while. But one person at Baker clearly remembers interacting with him periodically throughout the year.

Venora Frazier has been the Baker college coordinator for 17 years. She keeps Baker organized. Students drop by all day long to joke and laugh, get forms signed, whine about school or tell her about their misfortunes. Baker is the most centrally located college on campus, so even non-Baker people often know Frazier. People call her "Mrs. V," and "Mrs. V" is clearly beloved. Vanegas, like so many other students, knew her.

Frazier heard about the impersonator before she saw his picture. When she eventually saw the photo, it floored her.

"I was like, 'This kid is not the guy -- this kid is a Rice student!'" she says. Afterward, Frazier looked through some of her records just to be absolutely sure there wasn't a mistake. "I said, 'Now wait a minute, he had to have been a member of Baker.' But no, nothing."

Vanegas used to stop by Frazier's office last year to chat. Once or twice, he even came to her "tea times," weekly tea-and-dessert events held in her office to promote college bonding.

"He was very polite, very polite," recalls Frazier. "He was always smiling; he had a wonderful persona. It's very hard to imagine that he could do something like this -- but I guess that's what they say about a lot of people that are locked up."

Now that Frazier knows the truth, she feels sympathy for Vanegas. She wonders what kind of environment he came from.

"Who knows what he's really been faced with, for him to even want to get to this point?" she says. "It's not a bad thing that a person wants an education. And it's not a bad thing to be around people who are seeking an education. So what that says is regardless, he probably really, really does want that."

Ruth Samuelson, an intern with the Houston Press, is a senior at Rice.

ruth.samuelson@houstonpress.com

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