sisters

Ana (left) and Isabel Muñoz wait in line for the next carryout at the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank. The home-educated sisters volunteer regularly at many community sites and have scored a wealth of merit-based college scholarships.

MILTON-FREEWATER — Not that she needed the validation, but Mary Muñoz can now see in print the monetary value placed on the education of her daughters, Isabel and Ana.

Both young women will start college in the fall at the Catholic liberal arts school Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania. Isabel, 19, is bound for an accelerated master’s degree in journalism program. Unless she goes into library science, a decided temptation, Isabel said.

Ana, 17 but nearly 18, will be studying graphic arts and marketing. While she lives for art on its own merit, the self-supporting plan is to major in graphic arts with a minor in marketing, Ana said.

Ana spent tremendous energy downloading her hefty art portfolio to send to admissions offices, her mom said.

Between the two sisters, more than $1.45 million was offered this spring in academic and merit scholarships from 15 colleges — and counting — around the nation. And that money doesn’t include loans or grants that are not merit-based, Mary said.

Getting those offers took hard work, planning and organization from Isabel and Ana, who did not have college counselors at a high school to lean on, she said.

In other words, just another day of school at home. The Muñoz girls, along with their four younger brothers, have always been home educated. For Mary and her husband, Crusberto Muñoz, the decision to do so came after realizing Isabel has serious dyslexia.

The girls were born about a year apart, and their parents had already seen some differences in learning styles between them. Although Isabel attended a preschool at Walla Walla University, when the Muñozes went to register their firstborn for kindergarten, the child still could not write her name. And when Mary and Isabel observed a kindergarten class, Mary noticed most of the children were already reading a bit.

“I thought, ‘Wow, she is really not reading,’” Mary said.

Isabel would not read until age 10, it turned out.

There was no question in Mary’s mind, however, that both daughters were bright, so she embarked on educating her children in ways geared to their strengths.

A personal touch

“That’s where we started, and I had kids so close together, I thought we might as well do the same for everyone,” the mother of six said.

The family does not follow a set curriculum or school hours, often favored by home schooling families for the structure those bring, Mary said.

“We’re more classically oriented,” she said, noting that the last few years of high school have been more self-directed for her girls.

“We always have discussions. I might ask for a paper on a topic. I’ll just give them a broad topic like feminism in the 1800s. I just want them to read it all, listen to TED talks, podcasts, everything.”

Going to a brick-and-mortar school “doesn’t make you adept,” Mary said.

“And being home schooled doesn’t make you inept,” Ana added.

On this day, the Muñoz brothers were deep into their reading in various states of repose while in the same room as their siblings and mom — and seemingly oblivious to the conversations around them.

The kids have learned to do school work anywhere, Mary said with a gesture toward her sons.

‘With home schooling, you’re not stuck in a house … you’re everywhere,” Isabel explained. “Home schooling is everywhere. A trip to the park turns into a science lesson.”

Ana likes to debunk the myths surrounding at-home education.

“Home schoolers, contrary to popular belief, are really social,” she said. “We’re not stuck in a classroom all day. We’re out there talking to people.”

Mary said she and Crusberto support public education.

“We’re very pro-school, very pro-teachers,” she said. “Just because it wasn’t going to work for us doesn’t mean we don’t find it valuable.”

They’ve also given their kids invaluable opportunities to interact with their community, and those moments have now paid off handsomely in the scholarship offers, Mary said.

Community contributions

Since age 15, Ana has been part of the Walla Walla Choral Society, for example. And both girls have volunteered in church soup kitchens, community gardens, the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank and Milton-Freewater’s public library. The experiences have enlarged everyone’s horizons, as have numerous family road trips, Mary said.

None of the six Muñoz children use Facebook or other social media, although Ana does have an Instagram account to display her art. Isabel has had a cellphone, but Ana just got one. Being involved face-to-face has always taken priority, Mary said.

“Facebook just seems like such a distraction.”

Isabel and Ana are about to judge traditional education settings for themselves at a school known for its academic atmosphere — read: not much partying — and serene setting.

Isabel has made a start on college, taking online classes for the first time through Portland Community College and earning a 4.0 grade-point average. She will arrive at Seton Hill as a transfer student. Taking classes in person will be welcome, said Isabel, who will receive total scholarship funding of $36,000 each of four years.

Ana will be hitting the campus with the artistic talent that nabbed multiple generous scholarship offers. Her tally is currently $41,000 times four years, which was not the highest offer by any means, accordingly to Mary.

The century-old Pennsylvania university looks like the best fit for them, even though some schools dangled more money, the teens said.

Not only did the financial aid office there treat the home-schooled applicants with respect (that wasn’t true at every college, Mary said) but the campus exudes community spirit. Seton Hill — which has a medium sticker price of $36,300 per year — is made up of five schools on one campus and offers traditional class structure, plus sports for people who weren’t necessarily athletic in high school, Ana said.

The long-term hope is use their own savings for travel and incidentals and not take out any student loans, Mary said.

Isabel and Ana are confident they will do well at Seton Hill, despite being across the nation from family. They don’t plan to be in the same dorm — “We’ve roomed together 18 years,” Isabel said with a grin — but being in proximity will be comforting, the two conceded.

Mary said she hopes other home schooling families will see, through her family’s story, that college is attainable for their children — not that it’s been easy to navigate admissions offices and sometimes misinformed staff. But the proffered scholarships made up for that, she said.

“That was very shocking, frankly. We though they’d go to a state school since those are cheaper … When the offers started coming in, we readjusted the vision.”

The Muñoz sisters agree that although their home school work gave them an advantage, anyone wanting to go to college via scholarships has the best tool right at hand — working on behalf of others.

“It’s best to involve yourself in the needs of your community,” Ana said.

Isabel agreed. “And you have to take yourself to these things, instead of having your parents shepherd you.”

 

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.