Eighty-two Latino children of middle school age are spending a week in residence at Southern Oregon University, taking classes in Zumba dance (their favorite class), iPads, leadership, math, mural art, marketing, video and other subjects that will motivate them and give them more tools to go to college.

The annual conclave, called Academia Latina, is designed to help them develop a network of college-bound friends and mentors so they will move up to the next level of success, forming interesting and well-paying careers, says Academy director Juanita Ephraim, a teacher at Talent Middle School.

“About 75 percent of students here go onto college — and they become junior counselors in this program along the way,” says Ephraim. 

“It’s really fun,” says Isabel Rodriguez, a ninth-grader who just finished Talent Middle School. “Meeting new people, trying new things and doing Zumba. I want to go to college at an Ivy League school. If anyone’s interested in the Academia I urge them to come.”

“Zumba is my favorite, but the other courses help you academically and they give you tutoring if you need some,” said South Medford High sophomore Iridien Duenas. “I’m aiming for City College of New York or Princeton. I’m going into psychology.”

Duenas notes her parents do domestic and agricultural work. “We Latino people are getting better and going to college so we can have a better life," she said. "I keep to the American culture at school and speak Spanish as much as possible at home, because being bilingual is very important. With Latiño friends at school, we all speak English, especially if an Anglo person is around.”

The five-day academy costs $750 but no students pay that, because grants from the Carpenter Foundation, Migrant Education (federal money), Harry & David, Naumes and others cover most costs, says Ephraim. Many students pay 10 percent of fees.

Meeting other motivated Latino kids is huge, says Maria Felicitas Chavez, an Eagle Point High freshman.

“You get to meet people and experience what college is like,” says Chavez. “It feels very good. We thought we might miss our families, but we don’t because we meet all the other kids. It shows you that if you’re afraid to go to college because of missing your family, that it’s OK because you’ll keep meeting new people and studying what you want.”

Academia Junior Counselor Jennifer Corona, 23, explains that each year, students have to come up with a higher grade point average and one more letter of recommendation. This helps motivate kids and get them used to the idea of continual improvement academically and with career goals.

“All this can be a struggle because we don’t have the role models other kids have,” says Corona, who notes she has indeed become a model for Academy students. “These are the people who will become the role models for the next generation.”

Another counselor, Daniel Cardenas, 21, now in his third year at Academia and an SOU criminology major, said, “You see them realize a university education is a possibility. You see them fix their goals and realize they can create it.”

Academia, he adds, helps students understand that coming from a bilingual or multi-cultural home is no longer a disadvantage but quite the opposite. It’s in demand.