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Mentors show Latino youths college possible

By HEATHER CLARK, Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, July 16, 2009 (AP): Ashley Vegara, a 16-year-old who says her older sister dropped out of college after getting pregnant, vows she will become the first in her family to get a bachelor's degree.

To achieve her goal, Vegara of Roswell, attended a four-day Hispanic Youth Symposium this week designed to boost dismal nationwide statistics on how many Latino students graduate from college.

The Hispanic College Fund is organizing six symposiums this summer on college campuses in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Dallas, Fairfax, Vir., Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif., and plans to expand the program next summer.

Only 7.2 percent of Latinos received bachelor's degrees compared with 72 percent of non-Latino white students in 2005-2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent statistics on college graduation rates.

Because Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic population in U.S.-America's schools, the low college graduation rates should concern all communities, said George Cushman, one of the founders of the symposiums and a vice president of programs for the Hispanic College Fund.

``If we don't have them really contributing to our economy in the high need areas, like health care and science, we're in a world of trouble,'' he said. ``Ultimately what we're trying to do here is to change the culture about going to college.''

Cushman said Latino students are often given subtle messages that they are not college material from teachers, counselors, peers, and even parents. The students are often told they don't need to take advanced placement classes, Cushman said.

And poverty in some Latino communities makes youths feel marginalized and disassociated with the professional world.

``They don't believe they can afford it. They don't believe they can belong there. They wind up saying it's because we're Hispanic,'' Cushman said. ``But they have not only so much of a right, they have the same potential as any other kid.''

Some parents encourage their daughters to stay close to home and raise families, while the sons of some recent immigrants are encouraged to work manual jobs, said Andrew González, director of the symposiums in the Western states.

But if the teens attending Albuquerque’s symposium are any indication, those attitudes may be shifting.

Lucero Hernández, 16, of Roswell said her parents, who came to the United States from México, support her desire to attend college.

Hernández says she wants to show her parents she appreciates all that they have done for her.

``I really want to go to make my mom proud,'' she said. ``I want to make her happy.''

Hernández would be the first member of her family to attend college. She hopes to major in civil or chemical engineering.

Devon Castro, 15, of Albuquerque, says he wants to be an electronic engineer who makes better solar panels.

``I'm not a manual labor kind of guy. I like to build stuff, but I don't want to be working on a construction site in the hot sun every day and getting minimum wage,'' he said. ``I want to use my brain power.''

During the symposium, co-sponsored by New Mexico Math, Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA, Latino role models show students they can overcome obstacles to success. Organizers lead sessions on how to apply to colleges and obtain financial aid.

In one session called Hispanic Heroes, students network with Latino business leaders and public figures.

State Auditor Hector Balderas gave high school students he met his contact information and talked about obstacles he faced.

Balderas grew up in Wagon Mound and at age 33 became the youngest elected statewide Latino official in the nation. He told high school students he didn't realize early enough that relationships with adults could help him reach his goals.

``If you can really not be as shy as I was, really speak out and set goals, you can really do anything you want,'' he told participants.

Organizers say students often see peers fall short of graduating from high school and that makes it harder for them to imagine becoming college students. But if promising students can help their peers, their chances of going to college are better.

So students chose several issues—teen pregnancy, alcohol and drugs, dropouts, violence, education and peer pressure—that they could work on in their communities.

One group said they wanted to form a club—called Optimist Prime after a Transformers character—to help kids avoid becoming dropouts by offering them mentors and boosting their self-esteem.

Following the summer program, students will be enrolled in the Hispanic Youth Institute, which is designed to help students remain on-track to attend college.

New Mexico's symposium has doubled in size since last year and organizers have plans to bring the program to Phoenix and San Jose, Calif., next summer.

The symposiums have been attended by 2,500 students since 2004. Of those, 90 percent enroll in higher educational institutions and 75 percent have pursued business, science, technology, engineering or math majors.

Organizers say they have no reliable statistics yet on the college graduation rates of participants.

For a student like Vegara, getting financing and overcoming trepidation about leaving her family are the last things she needs to overcome before she starts to work toward becoming a veterinarian.

``I don't want any distractions,'' she said. ``That way I can get college done for me, so I'll be happy with myself.''

On the Net: Hispanic College Fund: http://www.hispanicfund.org
New Mexico Math, Engineering Science Achievement: http://nmmesa.org






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