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An Open Door

Neither of Natali Mena's parents went to high school. As a result, when Natali, a senior at Phoenix High School, started hearing suggestions that she attend college, the prospect was intimidating.

"I wasn't planning on college because I didn't think I was smart enough," Natali recalled.

Encouragement from a Hispanic school counselor, Cesar Flores, and Natali's 21-year-old brother who is about to graduate from the University of Oregon, changed Natali's mind.

"Seeing other Latinos succeed encouraged me," said Natali, who now plans to attend Rogue Community College to study nursing.

Natali was one of about 180 students from high schools in Jackson and Josephine counties who attended an annual education conference on Friday. The event was sponsored by the nonprofit Club Latino advocacy group at RCC's White City campus.

Club members say they hope to excite Latino students about the possibilities of a postsecondary education and career opportunities and to provide them with information about how to apply for financial aid and admission to college.

"The Latino population is growing and with it, the value of education sometimes is not enforced because of the struggles of making it in a foreign land with a foreign language," said Larissa Medina, a Club Latino member who studies nursing at Southern Oregon University.

"Getting an education is not an immediate reward. There are rewards later. That's one reason we started this event to encourage youth to continue their education, improve their lives and honor their parents."

"If they see other Latinos have done it, it makes going to college seem more attainable," Medina said.

At the event, Hispanic university students discussed their experiences — including their struggles — in attending college.

RCC counselors guided high school pupils on a tour of the college's offerings and facilities and professionals provided a glimpse of life in their respective careers.

"I think it's good to give people more interest in college," said Phoenix High School junior Celeste Guerrero. "I know a lot of people who don't think about it."

Finances and a lack of precedent in families often serve as obstacles to college attendance.

On Friday, RCC employees showed students how to work their way through the maze of financial aid forms.

"In addition to regular financial aid and scholarships, there are scholarships specifically for Latinos," said Sharon Smith, assistant to the dean of students at RCC's Redwood campus. "You just have to look for them."

Participants also took an aptitude test, called the Holland Code, to help them explore career options.

Alex Alvarado, a senior at Eagle Point High School, said he discovered he was a blend of enterprising and conventional.

"I like to take charge, show leadership, have adventures, takes risks," Alex said.

"But you're also conventional," added RCC counselor Joe Momyer, "so you also need a quiet place where you can gather your thoughts and plan your next move."

Educators say efforts by groups like Club Latino as well as local high schools have paid off.

Anthony Torres, a teaching assistant, said when he started at South Medford High School in 1998, the drop-out rate for Hispanics hovered around 90 percent. Now, the rate is 22 percent, still sobering but evidence of marked improvement, Torres said.

More and more Hispanics also are enrolling at local colleges, including RCC and Southern Oregon University.

"My counselor started encouraging me my freshman year to go to college," said Cristina Godinez, a Phoenix High School junior who plans to graduate a year early and attend RCC before moving on to a four-year college. "It helped a lot to have someone who knows the culture. He was someone to look up to."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Phoenix High School juniors Cristina Godinez, left, and Natali Mena visit a high tech IP classroom during a tour of the Table Rock Rogue Community College in White City. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune - Bob Pennell