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Against All Odds

Against All Odds

First-generation Latino college students share many of the same attributes that lead to academic success, research shows.

By Veronica Mendoza

While a graduate student at Stanford University, Veronica Mendoza conducted research on six Latino students from a troubled high school in San Jose, Calif. The school, located in a crime- and poverty-riddled neighborhood, is predominately Latino. Some of the students may go on to community college at best after graduation. Mendoza found that those students who did not attend college took on low-paying jobs and ultimately lived under the same conditions of poverty as their parents. Those that attended college usually had the benefit of an older sibling who had gone to college as well. Following are the stories of three students from the study who are  beating the odds and are now students at San Jose State University.

Elizabeth Chavarin
Public Relations Major

Since elementary school, Elizabeth Chavarin’s parents have told her that education is the key to success in the United States.
“My dad always tells us you don’t want to work or end up like me, working as a laborer, having people tell you what to do,” she says. “My parents would tell me you need to go to school and get a degree so you can be somebody successful.”

Although Chavarin agreed with her parents’ advice, she says she performed poorly her first and second years of high school. However, during her junior and senior years, she realized that her grades would have to improve if she wanted to go to college. 

Chavarin’s parents weren’t the only ones guiding her down the college path. An older sister who graduated from San Jose State in 2004 inspired her with stories of what college life was like. And her high school’s Puente counselor, Irma Morales (see sidebar on Puente program) kept the thought of college in Chavarin’s mind by keeping her apprised of university admission requirements.

Chavarin is currently an intern for the Spanish television station, Telemundo, and will graduate in May 2006.  Her career goals include being the host of an entertainment or music television show.

Roger Moreno
Business Major

As a high school student, Roger Moreno felt that the majority of his teachers didn’t care whether he succeeded.

“The way I saw it was most of the teachers — they really don’t care about the students,” Moreno says. But he recognized that at least a few of those teachers believed in his abilities and encouraged him to pursue a college education. Like many of his fellow high school classmates, Moreno’s parents emigrated from Mexico. He says his parents were very encouraging in terms of his education, and although his mother could not speak English, she would find ways to communicate with his counselors and teachers. 

“My mom wasn’t able to speak English, but she would always find someone that could speak Spanish, like Mrs. Morales,” the Puente counselor at the high school and an instrumental force in encouraging him go to college. The counselor kept Moreno on track to meet college requirements. Like Chavarin, Moreno had an older sister in college to look up to. He credits his sister, a graduate student at Santa Clara University, with keeping him motivated to overcome the hardships in his neighborhood.

“Our sister was a really good role model for all of us,” Moreno says. “If she would have been a rebellious teenager, I don’t think any of us would have gone to college.”

Rafael Solorio
Justice Studies Major

Rafael Solorio’s parents came to the United States from Michoacan, Mexico, during the 1980s in search of better opportunities for their family. They opened a gardening business not long after settling in the United States. His parents encouraged their nine children to pursue a college education, despite the fact that they did not have the information necessary to aid them through the college application process. Because his parents could not provide him with the tools necessary to pursue college, Solorio’s older sister, who attended San Jose State, played a key role in his decision to pursue a college degree. 
“When I need help filling out paperwork for school, I go to her and she helps me because she knows English,” he says. The language barrier almost prevented Solorio’s college hopes, but several teachers recognized his ability and took it upon themselves to improve his English skills.

“In middle school, teachers would give me books to read and they would tell me, ‘You’re a smart guy, but you need to practice your English,’” Solorio remembers. The family also faced financial difficulties in securing his college education. Solorio says his parents are unable to provide him with any financial help but he currently works part-time to help pay for some of his school expenses. He also saves money by living rent free with an older brother. Solorio says he may never have made it without the help of his sister, and the inspiring words of his childhood soccer coach, who told him, “It is those who never quit in life who are successful.”

Solorio has entered his junior year at San Jose State and says his dream is to pursue a graduate degree and become an F.B.I. agent.

Ingredients for Success

Dr. Miguel Ceja, assistant professor of public policy and administration at California State University-Sacramento, who specializes in higher education policy, says Latino students are disproportionately aggregated in overpopulated schools, where the resources are minimal and the number of inexperienced teachers is high. Dr. Marcos Pizarro, an associate professor of Chicano studies at San Jose State University, agrees, and adds that the problem for Latino students begins with the way the educational system is set up.

“We have students who need more and get less, and students who need less and get more,” Pizarro says. 

Ceja says that in California, Latino students comprise approximately 50 percent of the K-12 student population and that the issue regarding lack of access to higher education for Latino students cannot be ignored.

Chavarin, Morales and Solorio, who all made it to college, are fortunate, but they also share some things in common. First, the three students’ parents were extremely supportive and encouraged their children to go to college.

In the study “Chicana College Aspirations and the Role of Parents: Developing Educational Resiliency,” Ceja found that Latino parents are very encouraging when it comes to their children’s education. However, the parents often lack the information to help their children pursue a college degree because the majority of them have not attended college.
The three students also had siblings who attended college. The elder sibling not only helped the students in terms of information on how to get to college, but they also served as a clear example of the benefits of a college education. For example, Solorio’s sister began working in human resources after graduating from San Jose State and now owns two homes in San Jose. Solorio, who grew up in a working-class family, was able to apply his sister’s success to his own life. 

Ceja, in his research on Latino students, has also found that many students who have an older sibling in college benefit from the information the sibling passes on. Latino students without college-educated siblings can also achieve success in college, but they must rely more on their own resiliency. For example, Moreno says that his sister was self-motivated, and as a result, did well in high school and went on to college.

All three students also had a teacher or counselor who shared information on college requirements with them. But perhaps even more importantly, they believed in the students. Moreno says he has always remembered the teachers who encouraged him to do well in school because there were so few teachers who did. He also says that had these teachers not believed in his abilities, he may not have believed in himself.

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