Mac-Hi valedictorians

From left: Adilene Uribe-Rodriguez, Evelyn Armenta Landa and Alondra Sustaita Hernandez are the co-valedictorians for McLoughlin High School this year.

MILTON-FREEWATER — To be honest, Alondra Sustaita Hernandez is still a little surprised her vision is coming true.

Alondra, 17, is one of three of McLoughlin High School’s valedictorians this year. Next time school starts, she will be a freshman at Walla Walla Community College as the first step in her four-year college plan.

Like the other valedictorians, Alondra has carried a perfect grade-point average all through high school. But the topic of going on to college didn’t come up naturally with her mom and dad, she said.

Although her Mexico-born parents have been in America for 26 years, her dad in particular didn’t see higher education as realistic for Alondra or her four older siblings, Alondra said.

“He felt college wasn’t feasible … I felt like he saw me as a little girl.”

For students in Alondra’s shoes, efforts are in place to get first generation college-goers on the right path, said Mac-Hi principal Mindi Vaughan.

One program tackles the parents, so to speak.

The American dream Academy facilitated by Walla Walla Community College launched in 2017 with a grant from Blue Mountain Community Foundation, said program director John Hibbitts.

The six-week course, staffed with bilingual and bicultural employees and presented at Mac-Hi, is a training ground for sending a child off to college, Hibbitts said.

Curriculum includes explaining financial aid options — for example, grants are not loans and do not have to be paid back — how to fill out required forms, what’s expected of incoming college students and the specialized vocabulary testing and financial aid.

Many of the parents who sign up for the American dream Academy have only experienced education in a rural Latin America country, Hibbitts said.

“So their ability to help their sons and daughters is limited, and the students end up educating mom and dad. This program is to help bridge that gap.”

The college provides child care and a meal to remove as many participation obstacles as possible, he said.

“We try to build confidence in the parents. Even if they forget what we covered, there are folks in the schools to help serve them.”

The program also shows families career options such as welding, cosmetology, pesticide management and small business classes, Hibbitts said.

“It can get the whole family to start thinking about secondary options. We will support them wherever they go.”

He and his staff have already seen some fruit from planting seeds. Dads like Alondra’s, in the company of other fathers who are learning, can better absorb the idea of their child leaving the family nest for college, Hibbitts said.

The American dream Academy grant ends is 2020, but the college is looking for growth opportunities that will sustain the program and spread it to parents in other communities, he said.

In the Sustaita Hernandez family, an older sister started at WWCC once Alondra put her foot “adamantly” down about attending there, and now a younger sister is talking about college.

Her mom, Alondra added, was always supportive.

“So that gave me a fighting chance.”

Valedictorian Evelyn Armenta Landa, 17, wants to give to others what’s been given to her in Milton-Freewater. The plan is to become a teacher through Eastern Oregon University, and to eventually teach somewhere in the first-grade range, Evelyn said.

Her parents are American dream Academy graduates and highly supportive of Evelyn’s own dreams, the Mac-Hi senior said.

She also did her part by taking Oregon’s chapter of the “College Possible” program offered through AmeriCorps nonprofit organization.

Started in 2000, the program uses volunteers — typically recent college graduates ­— to help low-income students prepare for college admissions testing and consider various career options.

Hannah Imrem facilitates the Mac-Hi program, as well as at three other rural schools, commuting from her office in Portland.

“College Possible specifically works with students from underrepresented backgrounds, who are usually low income and first-generation college-bound,” she said.

She, too, comes from a family that was not part of the college-going culture, Imrem noted.

Other College Possible coaches have similar backgrounds with families that consider graduating from high school to be the big achievement, she said.

In places like Milton-Freewater agriculture is one of the best income providers, Imrem added.

“So families that have worked in ag their whole lives don’t know how to support a kid who wants to try something like running a business.”

Getting students into higher education is really a matter of teaching them how to get there, starting at the end of their sophomore year, she said.

“A lot of these students are really smart and really driven. They know they want to go to college, they just don’t know how.”

Mac-Hi’s valedictorians also helped themselves by participating in clubs and sports during their time in high school, Imrem pointed out, adding this is the school’s first College Possible cohort.

Adilene Uribe-Rodriguez, 18, has never passed up a chance to get perfect grades, the valedictorian said.

“I was a little nerd growing up.”

Adilene will start college at Portland State University in the fall, taking courses designed for the business and accounting degrees she seeks.

She fits the script — since immigrating from Mexico her parents have always worked in local agriculture. And while they’ve always been supportive of their children, her folks never really discussed college for their children, Adilene said.

Now, however, her 13 year-old sister and 5 year-old brother will have a template to follow, she added.

Mac-Hi’s graduation rate for Latino students hovers at 84 percent, 9 percent above Oregon’s average and among the highest rates in the state, according to Vaughan.

She credits multiple efforts, including the AVID college-readiness program taught at Mac-Hi by Jennifer Hammer, and the district’s decision to hire Ethan Graham as the school’s in-house college coach.

As well, Mac-Hi’s overall graduation rate has risen in recent years to 83 percent, above Oregon’s four-year graduation rate of 79 percent, district officials said.

“We’ve done a much better job of showing kids how they can do it,” Vaughan said.

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.

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