Providing Latino students with an early first taste of college for the 13th-straight summer, Academia Latina is creating a lifetime's worth of opportunity for some.
"We're opening doors for these kids," said 21-year-old Arturo "Tito" Onesto, who teaches Portuguese to students during the weeklong youth academy held at Southern Oregon University.
Onesto was accepted into the program as a student in 2004, immersed himself and never looked back. He played the role of a junior and senior councilor, a type of group leader, at Academia Latina before he started instructing last year, he said.
"When I came at first, it was mostly to hang out with the girls, but I started to realize there was a lot of value to this," he said. "It became the only thing I looked forward to in the summer." Onesto, entering his senior year at University of Oregon as a journalism major, is a good example, said Director Juanita Gomez-Ephraim, of how Academia Latina's work is beginning to come full circle.
The unique program has swelled from 25 applicants in 2001 to 155 this year — the most ever, Gomez-Ephraim said. This year, 98 students were accepted, while most of the others were turned down because of a lack of funding, she said.
Ending today, the program started Sunday and has been bustling all week, as the nearly 100 seventh- through eleventh-graders work through daily classes across campus. They experience full run of the university, including sleeping in the dorms and eating in the cafeteria.
"This is an amazing, inspirational place," said third-year student Jose Lariz, a 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at Crater High School. "I feel like I am always going to look back to what I learned here." Lariz said he will apply to become a junior councilor during next year's Academia Latina.
"I want to give back ... when I become successful, I plan to be a sponsor, that is a dream of mine," he said.
For the first time, Academia Latina accepted high school sophomore and junior students like Lariz into the program under a leadership role, but those students were required to take complete a more stringent application process. In the past, the program only accepted seventh- through ninth-grade students.
Elementary- and college-level math classes, creative writing, a culture class titled "Aztecs, Mayans and Ipads," foreign language, nursing and mural art are a few of the classes students can chose from this year.
Salsa dancing is a popular one, Gomez-Ephraim said.
In her third year at Academia Latina, soon-to-be junior at South Medford High School, Tana Garcia, 16, said learning Portuguese has been one of her favorite parts of this year.
"I just tell the students, it's like Spanish with an accent," Onesto said. "They are picking it up well."
"This place feels like a second home to me," Gracia said. "After my first time here, I knew I would always try to come back."
To come back to Academia Latina, students previously accepted must maintain a higher grade-point average than the prior year to be considered.
All of this year's applicants live in Southern Oregon, Gomez-Ephraim said, but many have been accepted from outside of the region and state during years past.
"I really enjoy just getting to know all the kids. They all have passions and you can see they are determined to pursue them," said Dani Camacho, a senior councilor at Academia Latina.
Camacho, who is entering his senior year at SOU studying business management and marketing, says Academia Latina changed his life.
"I got out of the program for a few years, but came back," he said.
"All my councilors that I knew, I say that's the reason I am in college, the reason I am at SOU. They were a really good inspiration for me." Like many others in the program, both Camacho and Onesto, who grew up together in Phoenix, have siblings in the program.
The program simply can't keep up with its growing reputation among adolescent Latino students in the area, Gomez-Ephraim said.
Academia Latina draws most of its financial support from a handful of regional sponsors, foundations and federal and state grant programs, which are perpetually on the brink of collapse, said Carol Jensen, director of pre-college programs at SOU.
Nearly all of the students accepted into Academia Latina are given scholarships that pay for $650 of the $700 cost of enrollment, she said. Most students pay a $50 fee to attend.
"Thirteen years ago this program was ahead of its time," Jensen said. "Now, it's something that could be replicated on every campus across the nation. We can certainly expand — we turn kids away every year — but we just need the funding."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.