By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
Anyone can dream the American dream, but living it, and preparing your children to live it, takes courage, planning and commitment. Based on a program pioneered by Arizona State University (ASU), Walla Walla Community College has launched a program whose goal is to put the American dream within reach of local Latino students.
WWCC’s American Dream Academy is a six-week program for Latino parents. The Academy program is taught entirely in Spanish, and is funded through a grant from the Blue Mountain Community Foundation.
During a three-day visit to its Phoenix campus, ASU trained a group of WWCC staff members. The soon-to-be instructors returned to WWCC with binders containing the complete curriculum, both in English and Spanish, and an understanding of how the highly successful program operates.
The Academy graduated its first local class on April 23, 2018. Parents from McLoughlin High School (Mac-Hi) in Milton-Freewater were the first to graduate.
“That trip to Phoenix was the best thing ever,” said Rosa Zaragoza, who is the program coordinator for WWCC’s Transitional Studies program and one of the teachers in the Mac-Hi class. “I brought the training home with me, not just in my notes, but in my heart.” Mac-Hi itself has a special place in Zaragoza’s heart – it’s her own alma mater.
“All of the program’s teachers are people who work at WWCC by day, and by night they’re active in the Latino community, so there’s already a connection, there’s already trust,” explained John Hibbitts, who directs the Academy program.
Angelica Can, who co-taught the first class with Zaragoza, is a perfect example. A native of Guatemala, she started at WWCC as a student in 2001. She finished her GED, then earned an A.A. degree in Accounting. After graduation she began working at the college, where she’s currently a program assistant in the Allied Health program. “Teaching in the Dream Academy has been a great experience,” she said.
“The idea is to work with Latino parents who have never had the opportunity to go to college, and more importantly, with their children,” said Hibbitts. “We help them understand what’s expected of students who will be going to college, and familiarize them with the specialized vocabulary of testing and financial aid. These things empower them to advocate for the needs of their students.”
Mac-Hi principal Mindy Vaughn is enthusiastic about the collaboration with WWCC. “This program brought Mac-Hi parents into the school to learn how to help their students graduate from high school and attend college,” she said. “Most of these parents have not had the opportunity to attend college, and enjoyed learning how they can support their children on this college-preparedness journey.”
“Next year we hope to expand the program to include all the grades 9-12 Latino families,” she continued. “This is the first structured program to educate parents on college preparedness for their students that we have had the opportunity to offer.”
Praising the school’s involvement, Can said “Mac-Hi really helped us a lot. They mailed and called the parents, and they gave information about the Academy to the students for us.”
One member of the first graduating class was Mercedes Diaz-Navarro. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, she has lived in Milton Freewater for 22 years, and recently became a U.S. citizen. As a young single parent she obtained her GED at WWCC, and took some computer classes. Those helped her obtain her current job in customer service at the Oregon Department of Human Services.
“This program has opened my eyes to the idea that I can go back to college and get a degree, and maybe move up the career ladder to become a case worker,” she said.
Her daughter Laura will graduate from Mac-Hi this year and will attend the University of Oregon, planning to study law. Diaz appreciates the fact that in the Academy program she learned about many different scholarships that may be available to her daughter.
It’s hard to say who benefits the most from this program, the students or the parents.
“The parents graduate from the program in gowns, and receive diplomas as well as one college credit,” said Hibbitts. “For the children it’s really significant to see their parents going through the workshops and a graduation, and receiving a diploma. Many of the parents didn’t complete high school and have never been through a graduation. It fosters a great family spirit around higher education.”
Diaz-Navarro is eloquent in explaining the importance of this program to her community: “The more educated you are the more opportunities you have to get out of poverty. Because when you work at low-paying jobs you have to work so hard and so many hours that you often don’t have time for your kids. And that’s when they start going down the wrong path. When you are educated you can give your kids the tools they need to be successful.”
The second class, parents of Wa-Hi students, will graduate on May 11. Collaborations with other neighboring school districts are in the planning phase.