When it comes to seeking higher education, the message to about 500 Hispanic, Latino and Latina San Luis Obispo County high school students touring the Cuesta College campus on Friday was, to quote Cesar Chavez, “Sí, se puede,” or “Yes, you can.”
On the day honoring Chavez, a labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded United Farm Workers, Cuesta College opened its doors to the students, who filled the Cultural and Performing Arts Center to listen to a series of motivational speakers, switching freely from English to Spanish and back again before venturing out to explore the campus in smaller groups. The event also featured a resource fair.
The 496 students, who preregistered, came from 15 different county high schools to attend the event, which was called “Edúcate-Sí Se Puede.” Organizer and college counselor Berto Marroquin stressed the importance of reaching out to students of Latin American and Hispanic heritage.
“The Latino population is the fastest growing demographic in the United States,” Marroquin said. “They’re very underrepresented in education.”
According to Pew Research, “Even though more Hispanics are getting a post-secondary education than ever before, Hispanics still lag other groups in obtaining a four-year degree.”
Pew found that 15 percent of Hispanics aged 25 to 29 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. That compares with 22 percent of blacks, 41 percent of whites and 63 percent of Asians in the same age group.
Marroquin said the annual event at Cuesta College has been showing high schoolers for 10 years that college is attainable.
“A lot of these students are first-generation (college) students,” he said.
Cuesta College is officially designated as a “Hispanic-Serving Institution,” meaning at least 25 percent of its enrollment is Hispanic. A third of Cuesta College students at the San Luis Obispo campus, 33.1 percent, identify as Hispanic, according to college figures. That’s a 10 percentage point increase since 2010.
At Cuesta’s North County Campus, about 44 percent of the student body is Hispanic.
By comparison, the U.S. Census reports that 22 percent of San Luis Obispo County residents are Hispanic or Latino.
Conferences like the one held Friday are only the beginning, though.
Once Hispanic and Latino or Latina students attend Cuesta, they can join a handful of outreach, support and leadership groups, such as the Latino Leadership Network and MEChA, which stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.
“We try to take them, encourage them to go to the next level,” Dee Limon, another event organizer and Cuesta employee, said. “It is feasible, they can get an education.”
Limon beamed as she described the students in LLN and MEChA, some of whom were undocumented immigrants who went on to thrive at Cal Poly.
“These are good students, straight-A students,” she said. “They like giving back to the community.”
Limon said outreach to Hispanic students is more important than ever in today’s political climate.
“I tell the students, ‘Follow the rules, stay educated,’ ” she said.
The importance of education was the theme of Friday’s scheduled speakers, but none resonated with the students more than Homero Magaña, a guidance counselor and motivational speaker who had the packed auditorium laughing and cheering as he showed off his dance moves and spoke of his winding journey “from the rancho to the White House.”
Magaña moved from Mexico to Fillmore, California, when he was a child, and he talked about how he failed to take education seriously until his father made him work with him picking lemons. He said “that bag gets heavy” when one carries it year after year.
Using a lemon bag as a prop, he opened the bag to spill books onto the stage, illustrating his decision to choose education over a lifetime of farm labor. Magaña would go on to one day meet and introduce former first lady Michelle Obama at the White House College Opportunity Summit.
Magaña’s message resonated with students like Kaelani Ribeira, a senior at Coast Union High School, who is thinking about studying nursing at Cuesta College after she graduates.
Ribeira said she hopes to eventually study at UC Santa Barbara, becoming the first member of her family to get a four-year degree and only the second to seek higher education.
“It’s a big thing,” she said. “I have four little siblings so I have to set an example for them.”