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Mexican-American Helps Minnesota Minorities Win Chance at College

Back in Elgin, Ill., Jennifer Godinez’s childhood home was a popular gathering spot for the neighborhood kids.

“We put a lot of toys and a little kitchen set in the garage,” said her mom, Margarita Godinez, “and the kids would come over and want to play. But Jennifer would sit them down on the lawn and give them books to read. She was like the little teacher in the neighborhood.”

The first-generation Mexican-American hasn’t stopped since. Not as a teacher, but as a preacher of sorts, with college education for minority students as her gospel. Working for two “very focused nonprofits” as director of the Minnesota College Access Network and associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP) Godinez, 32, brings boundless energy to helping create, and spread the word on, college opportunities for minority youths.

According to a Citizens League report, for current ninth-grade Minnesota students, only 3 percent of American Indians, 5 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of African-Americans will get a bachelor’s degree in Minnesota within 10 years.

“This is one of those things that snuck up on Minnesota, the elephant in the room. Minority students are not achieving. The African-American college-attendance rate is a crisis,” said Godinez. “These cultural communities have the aspiration to go to college; they are not cultures that are against education. But we have educators and (high-school) counselors who set low expectations, specifically with kids of color. I have so many people tell me that they’ve been told ‘Maybe you aren’t college material.’

“There are two pillars of the American dream. One is to own your own home, and the other … education. We know what’s happening with access to houses right now; it’s a big ol’ mess. In education, the issue is, how do we finance college for all? You hear a lot of rhetoric that everyone deserves an education, but the practices aren’t always in place.”

And missing out on that education is seriously life-altering. According to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2004 the average salary of an American with a bachelor’s degree was 75 percent higher than for someone with a high-school degree or GED.

After spending five years working directly with students as executive director of the after-school La Escuelita program in Minneapolis, Godinez now finds herself primarily dealing with foundations that can provide funding, college administrators who can create opportunities, politicians who can tear down roadblocks and community organizations that can help in sundry directions.

“I go to a lot of meetings … related to access in Minnesota. I need to be there, because sometimes the conversations exclude the issue of education for minority communities,” she said. “And when people like trustees and college presidents, who also have to go to so many meetings, hear a passionate voice that is about making access possible, they listen. Policymaking is done through relationships.”

At the other end of the pipeline, Godinez’s organizations continue to work on gaining a bigger foothold in minority communities. “What’s really great about MMEP is that we have a brand, and so the communities of color trust that we have products that will serve them specifically,” she said, “so when we explain how the Gates Millennium Scholarships or the Page Foundation can help them, they trust us.”

Opportunities are increasing, and new scholarship and grant programs are emerging, she said. One current beneficiary: St. Paul’s Juventino Meza, an Augsburg College freshman who received a scholarship from the Latino Scholarship Fund.

“Her organizations bring out a lot of issues we are confronting and get information to those who want to help us,” said Meza, whose academic focus is on sociology and secondary education. “The scholarships are not just about giving out money, but broadening opportunity.”

Associated Press

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