Giving talented Hispanic youths a head start

Juan Pedro Garcia, one of nine children of a Rio Grande Valley migrant farmworking family, leans back to display the red letters on his sweatshirt that name the school where he majors in electrical engineering: Stanford University. ``Before this, I was like a lot of other Hispanic kids,'' he says, gesturing to a gymnasium buzzing with the conversation of Hispanic high school students. ``After my experience here, I saw my direction clearer. I realized whatever I wanted to do, I could. But it was up to me to go out and open the doors for myself.''

Mr. Garcia, a junior at Stanford, is describing the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, a one-week program each summer for some of the brightest of the state's Hispanic high school students. Named after the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, the program was started six years ago by a Hispanic husband-and-wife team to encourage youth from the nation's fastest growing ethnic group to raise their sights and become the leaders their community needs.

Through discussions, three days of a mock state government at the capitol in nearby Austin, and a week of campus life at Southwestern University here, the program works to help students overcome prejudice from without the Hispanic community, as well as timidity and a self-imposed separateness from within, without sacrificing cultural heritage.

This year 264 students, mostly high school juniors, participated in the session, which ended Sunday. With 95 percent of the program's alumni now in college, it is considered a success by parents and college placement officers. The idea could be adopted next year in New Mexico and the Midwest.

With more than 45 percent of Hispanic youths dropping out before completing high school, much attention has been focused in recent years on the underachievers among Hispanic youth. As Hispanics become the majority of potential high school graduates in a number of US cities by the mid-1990s, efforts to reverse the dropout rate will grow in importance. The Lorenzo de Zavala program, or ``LDZ'' as it is called, works with academically motivated students and encourages them to be active in their communities.

``I think it's important I help now to motivate other kids,'' says Garcia, who this year was a senior counselor with the program. ``One of the special problems for many Hispanic youths is that there is no precedent for getting ahead, no role models. Maybe in a small way I can be a trend setter.''

The legislative session was started in 1981 by Ernesto Nieto and Gloria de Leon, both of whom had experienced the difficulty of leaving a close-knit and restricted community for what Mr. Nieto calls the ``mainstream of American society.'' Two years earlier they had established the National Hispanic Institute and tried a similar program to help young Hispanic professionals make that transition. But ``we found that to a large extent we were dealing with them too late,'' Nieto says.

``We decided we'd have to start sooner if we were going to help them take control of their own lives,'' he adds, ``rather than just focusing on fitting into someone else's life style.''

Nieto says schools and parents share a responsibility for the common reluctance among Hispanic youths to challenge limitations and compete. Noting that 85 percent of the participants in this year's session have an A- or better grade average, he says: ``There are a lot of kids getting good grades, but the self-motivation and self-direction is not there, and it is generally not encouraged.''

The traditional hierarchy and authoritarian nature of the Hispanic family must be taken into account in dealing with Hispanic youths, according to Nieto. ``We bring something of old-world values to American society, which is good,'' he says, ``but we have to help these kids build on that.''

Nieto says many Hispanic youths must learn to deal with what he calls the ``green-card mentality,'' the constant crossing of a cultural bridge between a strongly ethnic upbringing and broader American life. The ``green card'' is the common name for the document many border Mexicans hold to cross legally into the US.

To combat this, the program sets up a mock state government with an elected governor, a legislative branch, and supreme court. ``No one is allowed to sit in the galleries,'' says Ms. de Leon, ``and everyone is really encouraged to fight hard for ... ideas they believe in.''

Participants say the program's importance to them is not so much in the laws they pass or defeat, however, but in what they learn about their capabilities. ``The most valuable aspect of this whole experience is that it has students coming together and voicing opinions in a way they never imagined possible,'' says Rudy Villareal, a high school junior from Harlingen, Texas, who was elected this year's governor. ``Hispanics are slowly coming up, and I think having us sit in the seats of power in the capitol and discussing issues like AIDS and tax reform will help that process.''

Adds Elva Vargas, whose son Abraham attended this year's institute, ``There's a special need with Hispanics for something like this. There aren't many Hispanics who leave our high school [in Cameron, Texas] and go on to college, and there are only a few [Hispanics] on the faculty to set a high example.''

The need for role models was evident in a participant survey where nearly two-thirds could name no Hispanic national political leaders. In addition, 96 percent said their parents belonged to no political or community groups, and nearly three-fourths said their parents had no more than two years' college experience.

That information was shared with 44 representatives of colleges and universities from across the country, who on Saturday held a college fair for the students. A number of college placement officers said the program was a good place to find bright college-bound Hispanics, but they added that more must be done.

``This is the cream of the crop here, these are kids who would've found their way to college anyway,'' said Arturo Sierra, director of the University of Iowa's Upward Bound project. ``All of us, public schools and colleges, need to do more to find the rest.'' Mr. Sierra, noting that Iowa has a legislative mandate to increase minority enrollment in higher education from 5.1 percent to 8.5 percent by 1991, said his school would use contacts he made with session participants as an entree with other students.

As Tony Perez, the son of a migrant family from Mission, Texas, reviewed information from such schools as Dartmouth, Rice, Texas A&M, and the military academies, he reflected on what he had learned over the week. ``It's never too soon to shoot for whatever I want to achieve,'' he said.

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