Mike Brown and his wife, Nancy, have literally helped build a new university with their generosity.
Local junior high school students and their parents spend a day at La Verne
and discover that a college education is well within their reach.
As she turned to her 13-year-old twins and pledged to support them through their education and help get them into college, Emily Ramirez was overcome with emotion. Her eyes filled with tears.
“I will never give up on you as a student,” Emily and her husband, Sabino, said to their children, Sabina and Sabino, Jr, who wore black “Got College?” T-shirts. “I will never give up on myself as a student,” the twins answered.
The Ramirez children were among 165 middle school students from the Ontario-Montclair School District who, accompanied by their families, came to the University of La Verne in early spring to get a first-hand view of the college experience. As part of the event, the students and their parents made promises to one another during a welcoming presentation at the Sports Science & Athletics Pavilion.
“Having to actually make some kind of commitment to one another and seeing each other’s eyes, that’s what we want and that’s what they want, that’s why I got emotional,” Emily Ramirez said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “For myself, it means everything. I’m glad we had an opportunity to be here. It gives us an opportunity to see what college is going to be like for them and expose them to the environment.”
Her husband, Sabino, agreed.
“I think we can get a better idea of what it’s like, see what it is. It’s important to go to college,” he said. “It’s the only way to do anything different than what we do now at home.”
A partnership between La Verne and the school district, the day-long “Got College?” program was aimed at alleviating students’ fears about college and instilling in them the importance of preparing now. During their time on campus, students and parents took tours, learned about various aspects of college preparation and met and spoke to La Verne students and educators.
“The reason why we are starting to talk about college in middle school is that we know that it is a process,” said Cindy Cary, La Verne Associate Professor of Education. “We know that there is a lot of anxiety and fear about the college process. We want to relieve those fears before they get to high school.”
The middle school students came from the district’s six middle schools: Wiltsey, Serrano, Vernon, De Anza, Vina Danks and Oaks. They had a chance to talk to and ask questions of La Verne undergraduates who had been in their shoes. Many of the La Verne undergraduates who talked to the middle school students are first-generation college students and understand the trepidation that can go along with the process.
Alma Sanchez, 19, said being the first in the family to go to college involves taking risks.
“We can’t ask our parents (for advice) because they don’t really know,” she said.
Sanchez, a freshman, said her mother had been sick and she was unsure if she should leave to attend the university. Everyone in her family supported her going to college and encouraged her to go, she said. Her mother still calls every day, she said with a smile.
La Verne senior Jennifer Juhasz, 21, was also the first in her family to go to college.
“My parents were excited because it was something that they didn’t have the opportunity to do,” she said. “They were living through me vicariously, in a sense.”
Maritza Barajas, a 14-year-old student at Oaks Middle School, admitted she was a little uneasy.
“I’m just nervous because I don’t know what this school offers,” she said. But Maritza, who says she wants to become a teacher, said she was eager to learn more about La Verne.
She was accompanied by her sister, Jazmin, 21.
“I’m really glad they are doing this for her,” Jazmin Barajas said. “I wish more students had the opportunity to come and look.
“I just want her to get the feel of what she wants before she makes a decision, to think about her college experience and what she wants to get out of it and just enjoy looking around. If you really like it, then start working right now to get there.”
For numerous students, it was their first time on a college campus.
“You can definitely see the excitement,” said James Hammond, superintendent of the Ontario-Montclair School District. “This is a dream that is possible. This gives these students and their families a real, legitimate experience. It’s empowering to the families but for the kids, it’s planting that seed. It’s inspiring to me because you see the hopes and dreams in all their eyes, to know this is part of the American dream.”
The middle school students who took part in the program were a diverse group; some students are already excelling in their studies, while others are not.
“Some of these kids are at risk for dropping out of school,” said Marga Madhuri, La Verne Associate Professor of Education. By getting the students to think about college now, educators can offer support and show them that it’s not too late to get on a better path.
Madhuri said her long-term vision is to continue to work with the students when they get to high school. La Verne educators plan to track the students by offering workshops over the next two years that will help them prepare for college.
“We want it to be where these kids have an opportunity,” Madhuri said. “If you want to go, you should be able to go.”
Educators from the university, the school district and the county agreed that the partnership between the district and the university set an excellent example. Gary S. Thompson, superintendent of San Bernardino County Schools, said the county of San Bernardino has a low percentage of students moving on to college.
“Events like these are going to help students see the possibilities and hopefully encourage them to consider attending college and pursuing their dream,” he said. The event also lowers the anxiety level. “The fact that they are here with their parents is key, I think, in terms of encouraging students to seek higher education.”
“I would imagine they will walk away from this pretty excited about the possibilities for their future.”
La Verne president Steve Morgan said he was pleased to see the middle school students touring the university.
“Higher education is the most effective vehicle to level the playing field for students from a wide variety of backgrounds and to prepare them to pursue their dreams and that’s what we are about,” Morgan said.
Mark Goor, Dean of the College of Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of La Verne, was one of the welcoming speakers and emphasized to the young students that they could become college students and college graduates.
“The reason we want to bring you to campus is because going to college is about dreaming,” Goor said. “You will have an experience today on this campus that will make you say, ‘I can see myself on a college campus. I could see myself at this college campus because I like the way it feels.’”
Goor said educators want the students to be comfortable on campus, to feel excitement and to start asking questions about how they can get to college.
Throughout the day, one of the themes was working hard now to prepare for the future.
“One of the things I would like families and parents to know today is the difference between a high school diploma and what it takes to get admitted to a four-year university,” Hammond told the group. There are various pathways to a university, he said, whether it is straight out of high school or through a community college. But, he continued, “The requirements needed to get admitted to a university require planning today.”
Julio Felix, 12, who is in seventh grade at Wiltsey Middle School, said he was enjoying the experience.
“It’s a good idea to get kids ready for college,” said Felix, who said his aunt went to college. “I think it’s pretty cool.”
He said he doesn’t know what he’d like to study and said he expects to figure that out later. But, he said, he is positive about one thing.
“I will go to college for sure,” he said.