At the third annual “Barrio to Academia” outreach program, area high school students learned the merits of a college education and the means by which to achieve one. The January 24 conference, organized and orchestrated by UCSB Latino fraternity Lambda Theta Phi and by UCSB Latina sorority Lambda Theta Alpha, proposed to steer first-generation students from low-income families in the direction of higher education.

Every year the Lambda Theta societies work with high school counselors from Santa Barbara, Dos Pueblos, and San Marcos high schools in seeking out students who are not college-bound for financial or personal reasons. This year they extended their outreach to include high schools from Carpinteria and Panorama City.

The Lambda Thetas arranged for the students to be transported and fed, and spent their Saturday overseeing the event. This year the conference attracted a crowd of 105 students, more than tripling the turnout at the first outreach three years ago. The day involved a series of speakers and workshops intended to educate students about issues like admissions, the benefits of a college degree, and the dangers of street life.

Frank Rivera, vice president of the Lambda Theta Phi UCSB chapter, knows that often students don’t consider pursuing a degree simply because they aren’t aware that they have the resources to do so.

“We teach students that financial aid is available, and that there are such things like the AV540 which basically allows Mexican students to pay in-state tuition,” Rivera said. “Most of the kids haven’t even heard about these kinds of things.”

Among the speakers was Gilbert Salinas, director of youth advocacy group Teens on Target, who agreed to share his life story in order to connect with students and to offer them hope for the future.

Salinas, a Los Angeles native, was involved with a gang as a kid, was shot in the legs and permanently confined to a wheelchair. Now, a little more than a decade later, he works as a violence prevention specialist and has dedicated his life to keeping kids off the streets. During the conference, he was passionate in urging kids to “Move on – no matter what!,” which was the title and the basis of his lecture.

“His story was powerful for these students,” Rivera said. “I got a lot of positive feedback about his talk – one kid said it was Salinas who really pushed him to think about college.”

Also present was Ismael Huerta, who spoke about his 10-year experience with a prominent Chicano gang, after which he returned to school and graduated with a B.A. from UCSB. Other speakers discussed the ins and outs of college life and opened the floor to student discussion.

Rivera feels confident that students walked away encouraged and empowered. He draws inspiration from a particular student’s evaluation form, which reads: “This program helped open my eyes to college. I mostly thought it was just to get a better job and not be cheated in life. This program helped me realize that University helps me in opening my mind and doors!”

For Rivera, this year was about expanding the program-incorporating two new high schools, recruiting new speakers, and targeting a higher volume of kids. It was also about sending a message to the public that he and his Greek brothers and sisters are eager and willing to support struggling, unmotivated youth.

“Our fraternity doesn’t get a lot of coverage for what we’re doing to help the community,” he said. “We want to get our name out there and we want to expand our outreach programs, so this was a good start.”

Rivera hopes that the smiling faces he saw Saturday are an indication that he and his fellow students were able to make a difference, to inspire at least a few kids to chase their dreams, he said.


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