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More Than Money

EDUCATION / Reading and the classroom: Issues, people
and trends

Financial support is only the start of a scholarship program for Latinos. Its skill seminars and counseling for parents and students vastly improve their college success.

February 07, 2001|ERIKA HAYASAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A scholarship check doesn't guarantee a diploma.

The East Los Angeles Community Union Scholarship, which has given money to more than 3,000 Latino students in the last 18 years, learned the hard way.

"Even though a lot of our young men and women had the financial resources, they were still going the first and second year in college and then they were dropping out," said David Lizarraga, president of the organization.

"It was a whole new world with new challenges that a lot of our young men and women were not prepared to address."

When program directors realized that many recipients were not succeeding, they switched gears.

Directors of the program, which is funded by the East Los Angeles Community Union Industries--a group of construction, development, banking and other businesses--decided to do more. In 1996, they began holding mandatory seminars for recipients focusing on study skills, time management, resume building and leadership training. They started offering counseling, mentoring and support programs for students and their parents.

Since then, the group says, none of its recipients--400 in the last four years--has dropped out of college.

That accomplishment is in strong contrast to the relatively high dropout rates among Latinos in high school and college.

Just 16.5% of Latinos have bachelor's degrees, compared with 18% of African Americans and 34.5% of whites, according to a 1998 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Just last month, the American Assn. of University Women Education Foundation issued a report showing that Latinas have a higher high school dropout rate and are less likely to graduate from college than women in any other ethnic group.

According to the study, Latinas often face obstacles in education because their families do not see the importance of college. They are often pressured to stay home, get married and raise a family.

Jennifer Ocequeda, 19, a freshman at Loyola Marymount University, initially experienced some opposition when she told her parents she wanted to go away to school.

"Now, they are a little more encouraging," she said. "But for a while . . . I thought that they just wanted me to stay and help pay the bills."

Lizarraga said the scholarship created a support group for parents to help them cope with and understand their children's education.

"We live in a very paternalistic, traditional Latino society that doesn't, quite often, encourage our Latinas to move forward," he said.

"We found success in having parents talk to parents. There's communication as to why their daughter really ought to pursue a college education. They're not out there to mess around. They're working hard, and they should be supported."

The program also helps male students whose parents sometimes believe they ought to be working for extra income rather than spending time studying, Lizarraga said.

Ocequeda also appreciates the program because she finds reassurance at the quarterly meetings. Not many students at her college can relate to the hurdles she has faced, she said.

Many have never experienced financial setbacks, nor do they know what it feels like to be a minority on campus, to come from a bilingual family or to be a first-generation college student.

But the 180 Latino students enrolled in the scholarship program in East Los Angeles know.

"It's inspirational to see other Latino American students pursuing their education," Ocequeda said.

She has just started to experience the complexities of being a Latina college student.

"Being at a predominantly Caucasian school is a big issue," she said. "Prejudice still exists, and you end up sticking with your Latino friends."

She is still uncomfortable among students from more affluent backgrounds who drive fancy cars and enjoy financial security while she struggles.

At a recent Saturday afternoon seminar, Ocequeda revealed pages of notes she had scribbled during a seminar about resume writing: Put your grade-point average on a resume if it is above 3.2; list high school extracurricular activities when they are relevant to the job; be assertive when you inquire about the status of your application, but not pushy.

"Everything they tell us, it's stuff we know we need to do," she said. "But they push us and motivate us."

For Jennifer Miranda, 23, a senior at Cal State Fullerton who will graduate in May, the program has been a financial and emotional boon.

"It's a tremendous push because it's not just any organization, it's a Latino organization," she said. "It's my people, people I identify with. They know the struggles I will face because they went through the same struggles."

Miranda, who is one of seven children, also benefits from supportive parents. Her father, Norman Miranda, beams when he talks about his daughter.

"I have a daughter here who is going to graduate in May," he said. "How do I feel? Proud. Very proud."

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