Daring students to reach higher

Course makes college a reality for Latino youth

July 12, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Seventeen-year-old Luis Pena has few doubts about his plans after high school.

"Harvard," he says emphatically. "Or MIT."

He wasn't always so confident. A year ago, when Pena and his family left the Dominican Republic for Ellicott City, he assumed college was beyond his reach. But midway through a Towson University workshop sponsored by the Hispanic College Fund yesterday, he proclaimed that such prestigious colleges were worth shooting for.

"The symposium has increased my desire to try to go there," said Pena, who will be a senior this fall at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City and reads profiles of his idol, Apple founder Steve Jobs, in his free time. "I've learned that you just need to be crazy enough to believe in yourself and think you can change the world."

Pena is one of nearly 200 Latino high school students from around the state taking part in the fifth annual Maryland Hispanic Symposium, an initiative of the Washington-based Hispanic College Fund that aims to keep Latino students on the college track.

The program, which ends today, invites students to spend four nights on the campus of Towson University to get a feel for college life. Daylong workshops offer advice in crafting a college application essay, applying for financial aid and winning scholarships. Organizers keep the setting intimate, dividing students into small "familias," and pairing them with mentors who will track their process throughout the coming school year. The program also gives scholarships of its own to the winners of competitions in categories such as speech and art.

"Our ultimate goal is to create the next generation of Hispanic professionals," said Idalia Fernandez, president of the Hispanic College Fund. "What we are doing is capturing young people at the right age to be able to get on a higher trajectory. At the end of the day, they will be aspiring for a career, rather than just a job after high school."

The program, which began in Washington in 2004, expanded to Maryland three years ago. This year, workshops are planned in seven cities around the country.

Nationwide, Latinos are the least likely ethnic group to earn a bachelor's degree. In 2005, 12 percent of Hispanics age 25 and older had a bachelor's degree or higher, while that figure was 17.7 percent for blacks and 30.5 percent for whites, according to the U.S. census.

The workshop didn't focus on the challenges faced by Latino teenagers who are in the country illegally. Rather, organizers tried to inspire students, regardless of their circumstances, to see college as a possibility.

Too often, students lack the confidence to apply to a four-year-college, even though they have excellent grades, Fernandez said. Others are intimidated by the costs. Fernandez said that as a high school student she was accepted to Boston University but was taken aback when she learned that tuition exceeded what her parents earned in a year. She ended up attending, paying with a combination of scholarships, loans and part-time jobs.

"So many times, just knowing the cost will make them stop and say, 'I'm never going to get in there'," said Fernandez, who came to the United States from Honduras when she was 9 years old. "Other times, they aspire to be only what they see in their communities, like a social worker or a policeman, which is good. But some have the talent to be a NASA engineer - they just don't realize it."

Some students expressed anxiety about how they would be perceived as a minority on a college campus, said Christopher Tapia, who will be a senior at Laurel High School in the fall. But Tapia said he was inspired by meeting other Latinos at the workshop with similar backgrounds.

"I'm Mexican, and you know people at school are always saying, 'Oh, are you going to plant my trees?'" said Tapia, whose parents moved from Mexico to Maryland 30 years ago and attended college in the United States. "Sometimes it bothers me, because there are a lot of people like me whose families are not like that."

Many students, such as Jennifer Romero, 16, of Silver Spring, are the first in their families to aspire to attend college. Romero said her parents, who came to the United States 20 years ago from El Salvador, have urged her to pursue college. But they don't know how to help her navigate the application process.

"They always insist that I must go to college," said Romero, who hopes to attend the University of Maryland or the University of Miami to study education and psychology. "I feel a little bit of pressure sometimes. But after doing this, I feel like, 'OK, it's going to be fine. I'm going to college.'

"I just try not to let [the pressure] get to me," she said. "Because I know they only want me to have a better life, a better future."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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