By Raymond R. Beltran
Literally a thousand Latina students, from middle to high school ages, took advantage of the 14th Annual Adelante Mujer Conference last Saturday, a seminar designed to introduce college and career opportunities to young Latina students.
“I think it shows that they care about their education, that they want to do more,” says Jessica Santiago, this year’s recipient of the Maida Torres-Stanovik Scholarship.
With $500, eighteen year old Santiago will have a head start in the college tuition department when she graduates this year from Sweetwater High School. She plans on pursuing the medical field and is but one Latina, among a sea of South Bay peers, who is tapping into college information early.
The conference was held at Rancho del Rey Middle School auditorium, which turned out to be an open air theatre when staff had to unlock the sliding glass walls to accommodate an unexpected two hundred more guests.
Mothers accompanied their daughters and were presented with a day long workshop matrix including thirty two classes about everything from careers in print journalism, teen dating violence, to women in engineering.
“We don’t just want to educate the girls, we want the mothers too, to educate a generation,” says Mercedes Richardson, one of the conference committee members and a director at Sweetwater Union High School District.
Adelante Mujer began in 1994 with the late co-founder and South Bay educator Maida Torres-Stanovik, and it’s been servicing all South Bay schools since with funds provided by various school districts in the south. The initial conferences were to raise awareness about the dropout rates among Latina students back then. They were attended by 300 students. Obviously, the interest has grown.
Today, the dropout rate among Sweetwater Union High School District’s female students, according to the California Department of Educ-ation’s statistics, has dropped one percent since 1995 to 2.7 percent, or 2,032 students. Richardson says that Latinas make up fifteen to twenty percent of those numbers, which show a parallel decline as well. The district and statewide percentage rate is the same among females.
Although, Richardson says she still sees an utter feeling of disconnection toward school within the Latina community.
Sweetwater High’s Jessica Santiago says Latina students are doubly disadvantaged career-wise because one, they are ethnic, and two, they are women.
“A lot of people think we Latinas are not doing enough about going to college, especially women, but there’s a reason,” she says. “If everyone’s created equal, then there should be more opportunities.”
Her economic background “hasn’t always been the best” she says. Her mother has a high school degree and says young Santiago will be the first in her family to surpass that level of school.
As a speaker of four languages, including Japanese, which she sought out, her level of ambition is working in her favor. Her long term goals are to study orthopedic surgery at UCSD, with some frequent visits to Japan, but for now, she’s looking forward to her birthday this summer and the release of the latest Harry Potter book, an avid reader she is.
Several studies on the national Latino community indicate that Santiago is pursuing a medical field that is attractive for Latinas, psychology as well.
“I feel very proud,” says her mother Lorena, who is a medical assistant. “I think whatever we passed on to her, it was worth it.”
Worth it, it was as Spanish and English conversations tumbled in the crowd of other mothers, like Tania Becerra, congregating to find out how to get their daughters on the college path.
It was Becerra’s first Mujer Conference. She accompanied her eleven year old daughter from Casillas Elementary School to plant the seed of success early.
“Young girls don’t even know that it’s attainable,” she says. “I think for most, it’s just no one in the family’s gone to school and there’s a fear of not knowing.”
Not knowing the possibilities is a setback for Latinas she says. Becerra has a couple of semesters of junior college under her belt, but she says she was lucky enough to acquire a position as a governmental liaison for electricity provider, SDG&E.
But still, Becerra’s a first generation U.S. citizen in the family, which originated in Michoacan, Mexico and says that her daughter will be the first on her side of the family to complete college too.
“I think she’s in a bubble lately,” she says about her daughter. “I think, for her, [the conference] is letting her know there’s other people out there from different backgrounds.”
Janine Zuñiga, a veteran reporter, facilitated a class on print journalism for a handful of girls and told a story about her initial lack of interest in college, until she decided to take a few electives at a local junior college and found a knack for reporting.
“Once I took the class, it was perfect for me because I like to write and I like to know what’s going on,” she said.
She admits that after, ultimately, graduating from Long Beach State, she failed to pass a test required to work for the newswire, Associated Press. So, she began working for a Long Beach newspaper and passed it the following year. Since then, her writing has taken her to Los Angeles, where she covered the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and to New York and Mexico City.
Iasena, a San Ysidro Middle School eighth grader, said she attended the workshop because “it’s fun to look up and find information.”
She attended with two eleven year old friends of hers, Jaqueline and Karina, who were too shy to talk about their interest. Nonetheless, they did make a decision to be on campus all day long on a weekend.