Chris Bickel, a UCSB sociology grad student, tells Latino high school students about the merits of a college education.
Paul Wellman

If they hadn’t yet gotten the message that they were university material, close to 100 Latino high school students heard it loud and clear at the second annual Barrio to Academia conference at UCSB, an effort by the Lambda Theta Alpha Latin sorority and the Lambda Theta Phi Latin fraternity to recruit their ethnic brethren into the hallowed halls of higher education. At the end of the day, participants posed for a group shot framed by dancers from the Lambda Theta societies proudly throwing their societies’ hand signs.

“If I can do it, so can you” was one of the lessons graduate students and professors emphasized over and over to an audience of Dos Pueblos, San Marcos, and Santa Barbara High School students who were not their schools’ top grade-getters but instead were C-average students. UCSB grad student Rebecca Romo kicked off the first of six presentations by sharing her elementary school trials and tribulations, exacerbated by her family’s poverty. She described how she got a reputation as a smart kid simply because she started reading trashy romance novels as an escape from it all. “I held on to that identity,” Romo said, and it helped her beat the odds that show only 9 percent of Latino children in the U.S. graduate from four-year colleges. Now, she is earning an MA in anthropology. “But I’m no smarter than you,” she said.

The idea that more vocational training should be made available to teens who are not university-bound was educational philosophy-non-grata at this conference, at which several presenters told of being steered away from higher education by “bad” guidance counselors who did not believe in their potential. The presenters regaled the increasingly rapt audience with humor, practical pointers, rousing political rhetoric, and statistics. In his workshop titled Education vs. Incarceration, Chris Bickel, a doctoral student in sociology, told the students that the number of prison guards has increased 250 percent in the past 14 years, while the number of teachers has grown only 8 percent. He also instructed 10 participants to stand and represent the 10 percent of the population that controls 72 percent of the wealth in 2008, while the rest crowded into a quarter of the room. “Squeeze over, you’re trespassing,” Bickel told the masses. Education would put them in a position to “upset the setup” and make the world a better place for everybody.

Other presentations treated students to a slideshow of snapshots from the Boyle Heights teenage gang life of PhD candidate and Santa Barbara City College Equal Opportunity Program counselor Noel G³mez, who also shared stories of his challenges in college; the raw, emotional exhortations of Professor Xuan Santos; the sophisticated narrative stylings of Dr. Victor Rios; and, last but not least, the inside dope on University of California admissions and financial aid. Students took down the email addresses and in some cases the phone numbers of the presenters, who urged them to call if there was anything they needed. Lambda Theta members emphasized the fun they have had in college and the support they get from their fraternity brothers and sorority sisters.

Asked if they were sold on the idea that they, too, could go to university, Dos Pueblos students Ruth Reynosa and Christian Valdivia said they identified with the personal stories. “They have some of the same problems we do, and even worse problems,” Valdivia said. “That’s the part that makes me think that I could if they could.” They had come to the conference because their guidance counselor showed them a video of the first annual event. Though she hadn’t expected it to change her life, Reynosa was already planning her post-college career. “I’m all into solving cases, so I’m thinking I want to be a lawyer or a probation officer,” Reynosa said. “This opened my eyes, like, seriously.”


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