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Latino teens take a trip to the future

Orange County students' seven-campus tour is part of a college counseling program.

July 31, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

From subsidized apartments in gritty Orange County neighborhoods, 40 high school students began preparations to board a charter bus before dawn Monday, packing with them dreams of a college education.

By 7 a.m. the Latino students had hopped on what organizers called the "Barrio to Boardroom Bus" in Santa Ana for a week-long tour of college campuses in Northern California.

Many of the teens had never stayed in a hotel or traveled outside Southern California. Thirty-five of the teenagers hoped to be the first in their families to graduate college.

Although pleased that their children had the opportunity to travel and scout colleges, the Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant parents from Buena Park, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach were anxious about having their families separated. Many showed up two hours before the bus was scheduled to leave and began saying goodbyes, most through tears.

"This is huge for these families," said Yesenia Velez, board chairwoman of Orange County Community Housing Corp. Owner of 225 subsidized apartments, the nonprofit offers teen residents college counseling and, for the first time, an out-of-town campus tour. "Getting away from their neighborhoods is a big deal. For many of these students, this is the biggest trip they have haver taken. Even Disneyland would be big."

Mariel Pantoja, 16, a Buena Park student who hopes to be a police detective, woke at 4:30 a.m. so she would have time to go to her uncle's house to say goodbye, pack glue that will keep hair extensions in place, and to wipe her mother's tears.

"This is an opportunity we can't provide her," said her mother, Noelia Pantoja, 35, who came to the United States 17 years ago. "She really wants to go to college, and this program makes it seem possible."

Monica Cardenas, who heads the corporation's counseling program, conceived the bus tour with the hope of showing the teens "that there is a whole world out there."

Throughout the year, Cardenas and others have provided the students with information about colleges and taken them to local campuses. Cardenas, 24, knows firsthand about the barriers they face. Her father completed second grade; she graduated from Cal State Fullerton.

"There's no doubt that without this program, many of them would stray," she said.

Statistics show the odds are often stacked against the children of Latino immigrants. Nationally, one in five won't graduate from high school, said Richard Fry, a researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center.

Among Latinos nationwide, 47% do not attend college, 23% go to a four-year school, 25% go to community college and 5% get some form of postsecondary education, he said.

Students on the bus tour said their parents -- who speak little English and haven't attended college -- aren't the best career guides.

"That doesn't mean you don't want to go. I do," said Buena Park High School student Arturo Monje, 16, who hopes to be an engineer. "I want a better future for me and for my children."

Monje and other students will visit seven colleges in Northern California, in addition to seeing Hearst Castle and Monterey Bay.

Accompanied by 10 counselors who work for the corporation, the students will visit Cal State Monterey Bay, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, San Jose State, UC Davis and Stanford. They will stay in college dorms and hotel rooms, a first for most in the group. The tour is sponsored by numerous private foundations.

Buena Park High School student Christian Velador, 13, is looking forward to the free buffets at each campus, while his neighbor Michael Penaloza, 17, is worried he will miss his mother's mole and menudo.

After loading their luggage, 20 cases of water, 15 cases of Gatorade, 50 bags of Cheetos and several dozen doughnuts, the students filed onto the bus, waving to red-eyed parents.

"It is wonderful that they have this chance to see and learn," said Evangelina Flores, whose 17-year-old son Pablo Palominos is on the tour.

"I've only gotten my kids as far as the zoo, the science center and the Natural History Museum. This tour is the type of opportunity we came to this country for."

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