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OCC Program Helps Latino Students Cross the Bridge to Higher Learning


COSTA MESA — Like the 30 other students in his special program, Mike Martinez, 24, is the first member of his family ever to attend college.

"My mom tells me it's a waste of time," said Martinez. "She says I should go to work instead. . . . But I don't care. I'm going to school."

Terry Flores, one of his classmates, is a 31-year-old mother of two who dropped out of high school at the age of 16. Rebuilding her life after a bad marriage and battles with drugs, she believes that higher education is the answer to her future happiness.

"I've made a lot of mistakes," Flores said. "But here I am now trying to get an education."

Both are members of the one-year Puente program started last spring at Orange Coast College. Puente, which means bridge in Spanish, helps counsel and prepare Latino students to transfer to major universities and get their degrees, said Rochelle Polanco-Zook, the Puente counselor.

"Last year there were 30 Latino students who transferred to a four-year college from Orange Coast College," Zook said. "Only 30 students and we were the fourth best in the state. We should have more."

According to recent statistics released by the University of California system, more than 1,300 students, of all ethnicities, graduated from Orange Coast College and transferred to a major university in 1992, making Orange Coast College the most successful in the state.

The Puente program is a statewide program operating in 27 other community colleges and is co-sponsored by the University of California and the California Community Colleges. This year more than $60,000 was given to OCC to increase the number of Latino community college transfer students.

Donovan Gaytan, an English composition instructor, together with Zook form the Puente counseling team at OCC. They teach students how to write essays, pick out classes and establish short-term and long-term goals. Gaytan said one of the difficult tasks in his job, as a counselor and instructor, is finding the few Latino college students on campus who meet the criteria.

"Sometimes you find a student who fits perfectly, then you lose him," Gaytan said.

The two also hope to develop a mentoring program with the help of Latino professionals to give the students a realistic outlook on their goals.

"The students really need role models to help them see what it takes," Zook said. "Their (mentors') personal experiences are valuable to the students seeking careers in their respective fields. We have students who need a little help. The high-risk student who may not make it without help."

To combat the lack of confidence and loneliness felt by Latino students, Puente keeps the students together in study sessions and during the writing composition class the first year.

"This gives them strength," Zook said. "Everyone has someone they can lean on."

Lupita Gonsalez, 20, is the oldest in her family. She said the impact of college on her family was seen in her elementary school brother who she took to her class one day.

"He told me he loved college," Gonsalez said. "He wants to come to college when he grows up."

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