Commentary: This program helps Latino seniors to an Ivy future
SAN DIEGO -- As the principal of a mostly Latino and disadvantaged junior high school in Central California, Martin Mares has no tolerance for low expectations. He sets high standards and demands that his students meet them. He has no use for exc...
SAN DIEGO -- As the principal of a mostly Latino and disadvantaged junior high school in Central California, Martin Mares has no tolerance for low expectations. He sets high standards and demands that his students meet them. He has no use for excuses or hard-luck tales. He's part guardian angel, part drill sergeant. That's true on the job, and with his labor of love.
Mares' Ivy League Leadership Project is not your run-of-the-mill field trip. It started in the spring of 1992 when, after inviting a certain Harvard graduate to speak to one of his classes, Mares had a brainstorm. As a teacher at another junior high school, Mares became frustrated that so many of his students had a limited sense of possibility. Many didn't think about going to college, and those who did typically set their sights on state schools.
Then it hit him: Why not take students to visit Ivy League universities?
They could complete the trip during spring break, so as not to miss any school days. They would have to apply to his program and submit essays and solicit letters of recommendation and sit for an interview. Every student would need to have at least a 3.75 GPA to get in the door. (Most who apply have 4.0s.) And anyone who wasn't up to the task, or thought it was all too much work, would be shown the door. Rather than rely on school district funds or other public dollars, which are scarce and come with strings attached, the students would pay their own way -- at an average cost of $1,200 per traveler -- by fundraising and working odd jobs. There would be no financial aid or scholarships. The whole idea was to push students to work hard and sacrifice and invest their own time and money into the program in the hopes that whatever they took from it would be that much more valuable because it had not come easy.
So that's exactly what Mares did during that first spring 14 years ago after he heard me speak, and what he's done every spring since. He just returned from this year's trip.
The project has evolved over time. Enrollment is no longer limited to students from any one school district; this year, 21 California high schools are represented. Eight students went on the first trip; Mares took 32 this year. Whereas participants once visited a handful of colleges, they now travel -- in chartered buses -- to nearly a dozen.
These kids see a lot in a short time -- from Harvard, Yale and Princeton to MIT, Wellesley and Georgetown. They tour the campuses, meet admissions officers and interact with undergraduates.
Ask the students, and they'll tell you: the project changed their lives.
Over the years, Mares has expanded the horizons of some 350 students. Eighty of the program's participants have been accepted to Ivy League and other Eastern schools. You can bet the universities were glad to have them.
"America's changing," Mares said. "These schools want the top Latino students in the country. They know that our students are going to be the leaders of tomorrow."
By now, many of the early alums of the project have graduated from college, and many have gone on to graduate school and well-paying jobs.
Their new life will bear no resemblance to their old one. They'll have soft hands, and they'll work short hours. And they'll never come close to having to do the sorts of jobs done by their parents -- many of whom are Mexican immigrants.
That's what the immigration debate is about, after all -- the tense but co-dependent relationship between two groups of people: those who do the worst, dirtiest, most grueling jobs and those who feel they don't have to do that type of work anymore. Most of the time, the groups live in separate worlds and never meet.
But, in the midsection of California, there's a special man, and a special program, that takes these groups and puts them at the same dinner table.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com .