In some high schools in Maryland, students who are Latino and thinking about going to college often feel isolated and insecure, always separate from the culture around them.
Jesus Zelaya, 16, is the only Latino in his advanced-level classes at Richard Montgomery High School in Silver Spring. Melba Garcia, 14, is one of about 10 Latinos in her class of 300 students at school in Olney.
To help students like them, the Hispanic College Fund is holding weeklong seminars around the nation, including one at Towson University this week, to help propel students to college.
"They don't speak my language. We don't listen to the same music," Garcia said about her peers, adding that most students have a stereotype of Latinos as people who either cut grass or clean. She aspires to go to a community college, then complete a degree in psychology or sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park before becoming a lawyer. In the meantime, she worries about how she will pay for college. Her mother and father each work two jobs so she takes care of her 10-year-old brother after school.
Zelaya, a cross country runner and drama student, is aiming for the top colleges in the country, but finds that most of his closest friends are outside of his International Baccalaureate classes.
When he applied to the IB program at Richard Montgomery and was accepted, he said he had no idea what he had gotten himself into. "It took me a semester to adjust," he said. The courses were hard and he struggled academically, but then realized he just had to work hard to get decent grades. "I sometimes feel intimidated. Sometimes I am too scared," he said. He hesitates to speak up in the high school, he said, because "I don't want them to think I am dumb."
He wants that to change. "I came to this program to get rid of that and be more confident and make more friends," Zelaya said. For Zelaya and Garcia, spending four days this week with 150 other Hispanic youths at Towson has provided a chance to feel comfortable around other students who are like them.
They have come for instructions as simple as shaking hands properly and learning to pronounce their names clearly, to lessons as complex as navigating college financial aid. Wednesday they met with "Hispanic Heroes," men and women who had overcome some of the same obstacles to go on to success in a variety of fields.
Sitting around a table of eight students, in a soft voice Zelaya asked one of the heroes: "Where do you get your strength?"
"The students come from communities where they often feel marginalized," said Stina Augustsson, the national director of pre-college programs at the Hispanic College Fund. "We are trying to instill a belief and confidence in themselves."
The program aims to also make students understand that they are the ones in control of their own success, that "you don't have to be born in to success," Augustsson said.
Nearly 700 Hispanic students in Maryland applied to attend the program, and about 170 students were accepted, although only 136 were expected to attend. The cost of the program is underwritten by charitable contributions.
Since the program started in 2004, 90 percent of its alumni have graduated from or are attending college and many come back to volunteer in the weeklong program.
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