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2001: Still a hero of learning

In her 22 years as an English professor, Alma Rosa Alvarez says she has watched Southern Oregon University and the broader community improve the ways they reach students from underserved communities.

In a recent interview with Alvarez in her office, she broke away several times to provide positive feedback to students, saying, “You did a really good job” and “Nice work,” as students picked up graded essays on a Tuesday afternoon.

Alvarez is in her third year as chair of SOU’s English Department, though she’ll relinquish that title at the end of the year for a planned yearlong sabbatical in which she intends to brush up on new technology to better prepare her students for the future.

Her role as an educator is a long way from her roots as the daughter of Mexican immigrants who each had no more than a sixth-grade education while she was growing up in blighted and gang-ridden Paramount, California.

In 2001, Our Valley profiled Alvarez as one of three dozen “Unsung Heroes” serving the Rogue Valley. The story focused on the way Alvarez used her roots to fuel her involvement with a minority teen empowerment program known as “Standing Together,” which used monthly workshops to present education and career possibilities to high school students of Latino, African-American, Asian and Native American descent.

Bigger and more comprehensive programs have since taken its place.

“What’s been really great is that we’ve had other folks come and take sort of the lead on student programming,” Alvarez says, commending the work of others within the university. For instance, she points to the efforts of Minority Outreach Program coordinator Jonathan Chavez-Baez, who can collaborate more closely with area schools within Phoenix-Talent and Medford school districts through its Pirates-to-Raiders, Bulldogs-to-Raiders and Hornets-to-Raiders programs, which incorporate tutoring, mentorship and parent involvement to help Latino students find pathways to college.

While Alvarez says she “loved our little program when it existed,” she remembers making her own Costco runs for programs that ran only once a month.

“A lot of the kids would be like, ‘Aw, a Saturday,’” Alvarez says. “This is a more sustained effort.”

In fall 2018, Hispanic students made up 10.8 percent of the 6,114 students enrolled at SOU, according to the university.

Though she sits on planning boards for many of the university’s multicultural programs, she primarily serves as an education advocate for the Latino community through Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church in Ashland.

She recalls a recent conversation with a mother concerned about her teen daughter’s plan to drop out of high school.

“The mother was really mortified by that,” Alvarez says, describing how “she knew what that meant,” and how she came to this country to provide her daughter with an education. Alvarez recounts that the woman knew her daughter was struggling with math, had already pursued tutoring but was starting to “check out.”

“There’s a level of knowledge there,” Alvarez says. “She knew that there was tutoring there ... and it’s like, what can I do to help my daughter?”

In that circumstance, pushing the teen through high school didn’t seem to be the right approach. Instead, Alvarez told the mother that two people in her master’s program at University of California Santa Barbara originally dropped out of high school before pursuing higher education again.

Even Alvarez’ father, who came to the United States with a third-grade education and speaking no English, applied himself after long days working at a tire factory when she was young, taking English classes and night school and ultimately earning his GED.

“Then he decided he loved school,” Alvarez says. “We always had books in the house.”

Attributing it partially to her father’s passion for learning, Alvarez says her brother and sister have earned master’s degrees.

“To me there isn’t a ‘There has to this way,’” Alvarez says. “You don’t have to do it the conventional way.”

You can reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com.

Alma Rosa Alvarez