Ludivina Perez, far right, stands with her niece Heydi Hernandez Perez after graduating from Juntos, a program at Ontario High that helps families apply to college. Behind them, from right: Carolina Gomez, Victoria Alexander and Cathy Martinez, Ontario School District employees. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – Ludivina Perez wants to see Hispanic students reach higher. 

That’s why she enrolled in Juntos – a program with that goal in mind – at Ontario High School. Perez’s family was one of nine that graduated from the program earlier this month.

Juntos, a Spanish word that means “together,” is designed to empower Hispanic students and their families to plan for college. 

“We break it all down so that it makes sense to them,” said Jose Garcia, a coordinator for the Juntos program at Oregon State University. 

The six-week program walks families through the timelines for applying to scholarships and schools. They learn about GPAs and financial aid and even go on a college tour.

These families want to see their students succeed but sometimes they are uninformed, said program facilitator Angela Salazar. 

Most of the parents who participate didn’t go to college. There are language and cultural barriers that stand in the way, she added. A lot of the parents never finished school, or they attended school in other countries with vastly different education systems. 

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Juntos, (pronounced “hoon-tos”), started at North Carolina State University in 2007. Oregon State University brought the program to Oregon communities in 2012. 

Earlier this year, Garcia trained employees in Ontario and Nyssa to put on Juntos. Nyssa High, where 66% of the students are Hispanic, has yet to use the training. 

But Ontario High, where 61% of students are Hispanic, is on its second six-week session, with plans to kick off the next one in January. 

The two sessions so far have targeted high school juniors, but the goal is to start earlier, said Victoria Alexander, program facilitator at the high school.

Ontario High’s program is one of just a few in eastern Oregon. There is no coordinator for the region, but Alexander and Salazar, who work for the district’s Migrant Education Program, saw the need. 

Garcia helped out from afar, connecting with them virtually from McMinnville before the weekly two-hour workshops that target topics suchs as college readiness and graduation requirements. 

“The children of Hispanics graduate school and start working right away,” said Perez. “We the parents did the same thing. We teach them to work, but we don’t teach them that there’s more school out there.”

Perez went through the program twice. She is the legal guardian for her two nieces, so she took the class alongside them so that she could help with the college application process. 

Her own five children are already grown. 

“When they went to school, this program didn’t exist,” said Perez, who worked at Heinz Frozen Food Co. before a knee injury put her out of work. “I wish it had.”

Andrea, Perez’s older niece, has already been accepted to Oregon State University, where she wants to study medicine. 

Of the nine families that attended the first session last year, six students have gotten into college, said Salazar. The families who participate in Juntos are “way ahead,” she added.

During the program, families go on a college campus tour. Last month they visited OSU’s campus in Bend. Salazar said the tour helps change families’ perspective.

“That opened up a lot of them because the parents got to stay on campus and they realized this is not so bad,” she said. 

During the session’s last day, Alexander handed out folders to the participating students. Inside were carefully curated packets to help them apply for colleges of their choice.

As the class wrapped up, with “Pomp and Circumstance” – the graduation song – playing from a small speaker on the table, Garcia called out the students’ names one by one. He presented them with certificates as parents beamed and took group photos with the program’s coordinators. 

The graduation ceremony was like preparing for the real thing. 

Kimberley Jimenez, a junior at Ontario High School, said both she and her mom got a lot out of the program.

“It motivated her to motivate me,” said Jimenez.

Her parents are still a little apprehensive about her moving away for school, she said. “But they’re getting there.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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