Upper valley Hispanic families find career, college planning help in Juntos

By Stu Watson

Juntos participants share a laugh at comments made by a student in the middle of the circle during a group exercise.

As the first person from her immigrant family to attend and complete college, Luz Oropeza knows too well the fears, concerns and barriers facing Hispanic families who want their children to attend college.

That is why she so gladly shares her experience as one of six facilitators with the nearly three-year-old Juntos program. Juntos—which means “together” in Spanish—is organized and delivered in the upper Hood River Valley and other Gorge locales by Oregon State University.

Juntos borrows from a model pioneered by North Carolina State University. Ann Harris, coordinator of OSU’s Open Campus program in the Gorge, also coordinates Juntos efforts here. She says its objective is to engage Latino students and their families in a multi-week series of conversations to help them understand the array of career training options for students leaving high school, among them the dream of college completion. Luz says she could have used Juntos. “I had a number of challenges,” she says. “My family was in agriculture, so they were low income.

They only went to elementary school. I was the first in my family to go to college. They always motivated me to keep studying, to go to college and find a career I liked. If not for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done.” Her biggest hurdle was becoming a mother while she was still a student at Hood River Valley High School.

“When I became pregnant, I thought, ‘What would happen to my dream of college?’” she recalls. With strong personal motivation and family support, Luz attended Columbia Gorge Community College, then finished her Bachelor of Science degree in liberal studies by taking classes online through Eastern Oregon University. Luz now works for Hood River County as coordinator of the Odell Hispanic Drug Prevention Health Promotion Coalition.

Juntos Program Coordinator Ann Harris also coordinates Oregon State University’s Open Campus efforts in Hood River and Wasco counties.

The Juntos program engages families when students are still in middle school. The five-week session gives a big-picture view of the path to college. Launched at The Dalles Middle School in the fall of 2014, it was offered at Wy’east Middle School in Odell in 2016. Luz joined facilitators Leticia Valle and J.P. Ideker that spring as they welcomed their first Juntos group at Wy’east. She recalls being impressed at the strong turnout. “Sometimes, when classes are held for the community, they don’t get much attendance,” Luz says. “But the cafeteria was full.

Maybe 18 families, and about 60 people with parents and kids. So obviously they were pretty dedicated and motivated to learn, and have their kids engaged in it.” Once a week for 21/2 hours, the group meets, shares a meal, then discusses the path to college: How to set a goal. How to talk as a family. Graduation requirements. Financing. Planning. Juntos also reaches families at Mosier Middle School and high schools in The Dalles and Hood River.

As students move into high school, a separate Juntos program helps them focus on the nuts and bolts of course work, extracurricular activities, scholarship and college applications, and college visits. Students have visited Western Oregon and Portland State universities. OSU hosts a family event every other year.

“There was one mother who was nervous about her child going to OSU,” Ann recalls. “At the family day, there was lots of outreach from the campus Hispanic clubs and students, and when that day was over, the mom had changed her mind.”

In the “Train Exercise,” blindfolded Juntos students move from one place to another with only the person at the caboose sharing directions. Others create distractions and shout out incorrect advice. Afterward, participants share how the experience compares to being successful at school.

Ann says Juntos—and a visit to OSU—are not meant to be an OSU recruiting program. It is more about demystifying the college experience for people who have never lived that experience. The program is free. Support comes from local schools, OSU Extension and a $12,000 grant from the Lake Family Foundation in Mosier. Several of the facilitators are affiliated with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, based in Odell. One of them, Sara Tiscareno-Kennedy, says young and old family members love the program.

“Alexis Montoya is a good example,” she says. “He has been to every single Juntos meeting this semester, and was part of the starter group. He comes to the afterschool sessions as well, and he has helped with the day care for the workshops. He has also been committed to our service as a club together.” Sara says Alexis’ mother is a strong supporter of Juntos and has helped recruit new families. Luz says that is not unusual. “There was a lot of positive feedback from participants,” she says.

“One thing they said was that they were grateful and appreciated that the program was done in Spanish.” After all, to spend six weeks talking about barriers, why not make it a little easier for some participants to move past the language barrier?

For more information, contact Juntos coordinator Ann Harris at (541) 386-3343 or ann.harris@oregonstate.edu.