Belica Avila, in the center, is dressed head-to-toe in her graduation cap and gown on the day of her high school graduation. At the far left, her mother, Zenaida Avila, followed by her father, Bernardo Avila and to the far right, her brother, Angel Avila. (Photo/ Belica Avila)

Upward Bound helps Latinos reach college and beyond

It took 19-year-old Belica Avila countless hours spent at study hall, Saturday mornings prep test sessions and three years of summer school to get to UCLA.

That’s how much Avila says she wanted an education and she couldn’t have done it without  Upward Bound. The Upward  Bound program provides high school students access to mentors, after school tutoring, academic advising and opportunities for career and leadership development. She found out about the program at Riverside City College during high school in her hometown of Riverside, California. Today, she is on a full scholarship and the first in her family to go to college.

“I didn’t have anybody at home that could help me, so I think it was definitely worth it,” says Avila.

Upward Bound is one of eight federally-funded programs offered through the Department of Education TRIO programs, which offer economically disadvantaged and first-generation college-bound students college planning assistance and resources. The program is offered at 780 different campuses nationwide.

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Upward Bound students participate in a community service activity during the 2010-2011 academic year. At right is Jennifer Garcia and to the left is Laura Diaz. (Photo/ Alejandro Torres, Upward Bound Riverside City College)

Cecilia Alvarado, Riverside City College’s Dean of Student Services, calls programs like Upward Bound the great equalizer.

Like Avila, Alvarado was a first-generation college student in her family and also a product of the TRIO programs. Now she’s in a position to give back.

“No one is telling Latinos not to go to college but when your parents don’t speak English and they can’t help you with biology, these programs provide the student with support services and that’s when you have equity,” she says.

While high school graduation rates have risen to 73.4 percent, and Latinos have made strides, their graduation rates still lag behind whites and Asians at 63 percent, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

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The Upward Bound program during the 2010-2011 academic year cultural field trip to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Photo/ Alejandro Torres, Upward Bound Riverside City College)

The report also notes that while 1.1 million students in the class of 2012 are expected to drop out or flunk high school, 310,000, or 27 percent of Latino students will fail to graduate.

“See, getting them in is not the trick,” says Alvarado. “It’s getting them to stay and succeed, that’s why these program are so important.”

Dr. John Moder, the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, agrees.

“This is not to say that Hispanic families place a higher value on work versus education but more so an issue of ‘If you’re poor, you have to work to put food on the table,’ so these are competing values,” says Moder.

This is not just a Hispanic problem says Moder, since Hispanics will account for  three-quarters of the growth of the nation’s labor force between 2010 and 2020, according to a recent Pew Center report.

“These are system issues that require system-type of changes,” he said. “Mentoring and even something as small as a visit to college campuses when children are in middle school, can make a big difference. I mean, how can you dream of becoming a doctor if you’re never met one? It’s much like that, ” explains Moder.

For Avila, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who came to the United Stated without speaking the language and with very little education, a program like Upward Bound was like hitting the jackpot.

Avila learned about the program in 9th grade but didn’t apply until the following year. Avila remained in the program throughout her high school career, and it helped her stay on track throughout SAT and ACT prep courses and until she fulfilled the college application process.

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Upward Bound students during a college field trip to the University of Southern California for a panel discussion lead by medical students. (Photo/Alejandro Torres, Upward Bound Riverside City College)

“The benefit was that it would get you ahead,” says the now sophomore, majoring in Neuroscience. “And for other students, it was also helpful because it got them ahead in subjects like math.”

“All the hard work, I think it was definitely worth it, ” she adds.

Avila’s parents were big believers of the program from the very beginning. Even Avila’s little brother, Angel, is an Upward-Bounder — now going on his second year.

The rule in their home was homework had to be done immediately after school, says Avila’s mother, Zenaida Avila.

“It was always: ‘Andale, go do your homework,’ but it’s been a struggle,” adds the proud mother.

Zenaida Avila and her husband Bernando came to the U.S. from Mexico just like any other immigrants wanting a better life. They always wanted their children to get a good education, but the Avilas  say their lack of education always made it challenging for them to help their children with their schoolwork.

“I’m very proud of both my children and I just thank God for them,” Zenaida Avila said. “Belica’s always been a good daughter, a good student and there you have it — the prove, she’s moving forward and succeeding.”

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