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Education Evangelist : Counselor Sells Higher Education as an Option for Those Who Have Counted Themselves Out

March 31, 1988|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

To attend seventh grade, Irasema Pedraza walked three miles. And that was just to get to the school bus.

More than a decade later and after a lifetime of changes, there remain indelible impressions and lasting values from her days as a young girl in the remote Mexican village of San Juan Tumbio.

Perhaps foremost is the inspiration of her grandmother.

"She felt responsible for me and took it seriously," Pedraza said.

"She would hold a stick in her hand and say: 'You have to go to school,' " Pedraza recalled with a broad grin. "Her style helped in raising me. She understands how important education is."

Today, at the age of 26, having reaped the benefits of grandmother's guidance, Pedraza is more than merely grateful. She is on a singular mission to instill in others the same reverence for education imparted to her by her grandmother, a woman who never learned to read or write.

Five days a week Pedraza can be found buttonholing middle-aged women, advising teen-agers, encouraging very young children and generally delivering her special sales pitch to anyone who stops long enough to listen.

She is selling prospective students on the value of a college education. The only thing her customers are expected to pay is attention.

Pedraza's clients are the county's minorities, whose high school dropout rate is alarmingly high and whose level of college enrollment is discouragingly low.

The percent of Hispanic high school graduates ages 18 to 24 attending college declined from 36% in 1976 to 27% in 1985, according to the American Council on Education.

"That trend continues today, not only in California, but nationwide," according to Donald Randol, Coast Community College District director of education services.

For two years Pedraza has run the Mobile Higher Education Center out of the back of a van. She brings a glimpse of college to 200 community centers, public schools, job-training sites--anywhere she can find an audience.

The program is sponsored by a consortium of the eight Orange County public colleges and Cal State Long Beach.

"It's really essential for the economic health of California that (minorities) participate and get the training other folks do," said Randol, a consortium director. "It's really a social goal as much as an education goal."

If this were a movie, Central Casting could not have delivered a more ideally suited leading lady. Pedraza came to the United States at the age of 15. She spoke no English.

As a young girl, she lived with her grandmother, Nicolaza Mendoza, in a dusty Mexican village so small the streets had no names, the houses had no addresses and only about 1,000 people called it home. Her two sisters and brother lived with Pedraza's mother and father, who had immigrated to the United States when she was very young.

Rather than leave the grandmother alone, the family decided Edie would stay behind with her. She and her grandmother finally joined the rest of the family in Anaheim in 1976.

In Mexico it was her grandmother who followed her every morning "to make sure nothing happened to me and that I got to school.

"She used to, I guess you could say, spy on me to make sure I was in school," Pedraza recalled. "She used to drop by the school regularly to say: 'I don't know how to read, but can you tell me how this girl is doing?' "

Pedraza's father works in the strawberry fields, her mother in a factory. She lives in Garden Grove with them, her younger sister and, of course, her grandmother, now 87 years old.

Pedraza's personal achievements serve as an example for those she hopes to inspire. She graduated in 1978 from Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove and embarked on a college education with little understanding of how to go about it or where it would take her.

It took seven years to complete four years of study, principally because Pedraza was still mastering English. But she emerged from Rancho Santiago College and then Cal State Fullerton with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

The little teen-age girl from San Juan Tumbio who could speak no English had transformed herself into a college-educated woman. Now she wants to do the same for others.

Although the Mobile Higher Education Center program was conceived before Pedraza was hired, it has unmistakably been shaped by her.

"We had probably 20 applicants, and Edie was clearly the No. 1 choice," Randol said. "She is just a real dynamo. We had a job description for her, but really had no groundwork laid. She made contacts with 89 different agencies."

Though the program "may sound like a lot of other recruiting efforts," Randol said, "we really haven't concentrated on recruiting, per se. What we are trying to do is bring the message that college is important and to assist (minorities) by providing information. It's kind of a long-term project.

"We're thinking that if we can kind of create some type of climate that is favorable, more of these folks will be going to school."

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