Before he met his mentor, Oscar Alvarado had never sat down and talked to a Latino business owner. As a freshman at Oxnard College, Alvarado was paired with Javier Castro, an Oxnard businessman and college graduate.
"I thought that to be successful in business you had to be selfish and cold," said Alvarado, the first in his family to graduate from high school. "But Javier does care and does help the Latino community. Now I feel like I can do the same."
The question now is whether the Puente Project, which provides mentors, writing classes and career counseling to community college students like Alvarado, will survive the legislative conference committee's current review of the 1996-97 state education budget.
Whatever decision is made in Sacramento between now and Saturday, when the Legislature is supposed to submit its budget to the governor, may have a dramatic effect on programs serving minority community college students in Ventura County.
Most committee members are expected to support an Assembly proposal to eliminate state-funded academic programs that aid students of a particular race or ethnic group.
"I believe in equal rights, not special rights," said state Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), a conference committee member who supports the proposal. "Since I support everyone's rights, I certainly don't want anyone singled out for a favor just because they can't make it on their own."
Three other members of the six-member committee, including Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), also are expected to recommend the proposal's adoption.
A yes vote by the Legislature could end state funding for Puente, and, depending on how the budget language is interpreted--conceivably bar ethnic student clubs from meeting at Oxnard, Moorpark and Ventura colleges.
Pete Tafoya, chairman of the Ventura County Community College District, said that eliminating funds for the Puente Project, which helps Latino students gain the academic skills to transfer to four-year colleges, is shortsighted.
"What do you accomplish by cutting funding for an inexpensive program with a high success rate?" Tafoya asked. "I think politicians like Mr. Richter are using color to racially polarize people." Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) is the author of the proposal.
At Oxnard College, the only community college in the county that has the Puente program, about 30 Latino students are participating in it. Each is assigned a Latino professional as a mentor, along with a guidance counselor who provides academic and career advice. They are also required to enroll in two courses geared toward instilling the writing skills needed to succeed at a four-year college.
Oxnard College contributes to the program by allowing one English teacher and one guidance counselor to dedicate one-third of their time to the Puente students.
Of the 6,000 students who have completed the program at 32 California community colleges since 1981, 56% transferred to four-year colleges.
Wright said such programs give certain students an unfair taxpayer-financed advantage when applying to college.
"If youngsters are given an equal opportunity in K-12, they should be given an equal opportunity to compete for college and not be given a special advantage," Wright said.
Sen. Richter's chief of staff, David Reade, said the proposal's intended purpose is to serve "all the citizens of the state of California and not just a particular race or ethnic group."
Reade said the Puente program's $944,000 annual budget should be spent on programs that benefit all community college students, rather than one particular group.
But Ruth Hemming, interim president of Oxnard College, said schools routinely create programs to address the special needs of students. The issue, she said, isn't whether a school should offer remedial math, bilingual education classes or advanced courses for gifted students, but whether they are effective.
"Puente is considered a very effective program at Oxnard College," Hemming said.
The project also has widespread community support, Hemming said.
The Oxnard program's co-director, Margarita Corral, says removing Puente's funds will make it that much harder for students like Alvarado to attend better schools and realize their full potential.
After meeting their mentors, Corral said, "The thing our students tell us most often is 'I never knew that there were so many Latino professionals and I never thought that someone so successful would care about someone like me.' "