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'College is an Option'

Arturo Onesto grew up believing that college wasn't an option for a low-income Latino kid like himself — but that all changed when he attended a Southern Oregon University summer program.

Academia Latina, a weeklong youth academy program for Latino students, changed Onesto's life, setting him on a track to graduate near the top of his class at Phoenix High School and attend the University of Oregon with a full academic scholarship.

Now in his second year at the Eugene university, he's returned to Ashland this week to help out with Academia because he wants to show the kids they, too, can go to college.

"I didn't think it was possible because of my family's situation, but coming here made a huge difference," said Onesto, who began cooking, cleaning and changing his brothers' and sisters' diapers at the age of 10. "It showed me that college is an option."

Nearly all of the 79 students in the program would be the first in their families to attend college if they end up enrolling, said director Juanita Gómez-Ephraim.

"A lot of their parents are migrants, who maybe didn't even graduate from high school," she said. "So we have to plant this seed in them and tell them that they can do it, and hopefully the seed will grow and we'll have more Latino college grads."

The residential program gives 12- through 14-year-olds a chance to experience college life — taking classes, sleeping in the dorms and eating in the cafeteria.

Funded by a variety of grants for migrant and low-income students, the program costs each student about $50. Students come from across Jackson and Josephine counties.

Classes focus on skills needed for college, such as writing and math, but there are also courses on nursing, video production and forensic science, designed to give the kids a glimpse at various careers. SOU professors, Rogue Valley teachers and local professionals teach the courses.

Onesto, who is studying business, helped out with the Writing Latino Style class Monday. The class allows students to explore their cultural history and incorporate their own writing styles, while learning about proper grammar and punctuation.

"We can use this to help teach them how to write a biography because you need to do that for a lot of college applications," said Gómez-Ephraim, who teaches English at Talent Middle School during the school year.

Latino writing often includes vivid descriptions, colorful details and pictures to accompany stories, said course teacher Lynn LaTourrette, who teaches language arts at the middle school.

"These students might look at a tree and instead of just writing, 'It's a tree,' they would write about the green leaves and the branches and really go into depth," she said. "It's an artful way of writing."

The dozen students in the class are creating books this week filled with stories and drawings about their past, present and future.

"Javier, come over here and sit on grandma's lap, and I'll tell you a story," LaTourrette said, illustrating the types of stories she wanted the kids to write down. "What did your grandma used to tell you when you sat on her lap?"

Javier Vargas, 13, joked that he was a little old to still be sitting on grandma's lap, but he remembered his abuela telling him about growing up in Mexico.

Irasema Huerta, 15, grew up hearing Mexican folktales designed to teach children lessons.

"Just as Americans have been scared of 'The Boogeyman,' us Latinos grew up terrified of 'El Cucuy,'" a mythical monster, she wrote.

Meanwhile, Gabriela Gil, 13, wrote a story about taking her father's tejano, a type of cowboy hat, as a child.

"I would grab it and wear it and just run around the house in diapers," she wrote.

After writing about the way their culture has shaped their past and present, the students will reflect this week on where they see themselves in the next 10 years, LaTourrette said.

Onesto said he hopes many of the students will write about attending college and pursuing exciting careers.

"Now that I'm in college, I wanted to come back and show them that they can do it, too," he said. "I grew up thinking I would just have to graduate high school and get a job to help my family, but now I'll be able to do so much more."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.

Lynn LaTourrette prepares Javier Vargas, left, Jasmin Sandoval, back, and Ashley Serna for a creative writing exercise during Academia Latina at Southern Oregon University Monday. Jamie Lusch / Ashland Daily Tidings - Jamie Lusch