Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Jonathan Chavez-Baez coordinator for minority outreach programs at Southern Oregon University.
Q: How do you support minority students in their quest for college at Southern Oregon University or other institutions?
Chavez-Baez: We’ve been able to establish some really meaningful and empowering programs at SOU when it comes to underserved students, specifically minority students. We’ve created several programs that allow students to not only see the possibility of college, but to live the experience of college. Whether it’s coming on campus for a week and taking classes in a campus setting, seeing other students who look like them on campus, being able to celebrate their culture and their background at the same time as they’re sharing this experience I think it’s really empowering. It’s very motivating and it creates this little spark that allows these students to see that, “I can be there one day.”
We are creating ways for them not only to see this experience for one week in the summer, but we have been able to create programs that can follow the students for the whole year. Whether it’s students participating in the Pirates, Bulldogs and Hornets to Raiders Program that we have at six middle and high schools in the Medford and Phoenix-Talent area or coming on a Saturday with their parents for Latino Family Day or empowering students with skills to be better leaders in their community with the César Chávez Leadership Conference. All of these create this incredible roadmap for students to be on the SOU campus, to get these wonderful opportunities and skills. We want them to see the possibility of what a college degree and SOU can do for them.
Q: You’ve been directing Academia Latina for many years. How has it grown?
Chavez-Baez: Academia Latina is a week-long summer program where students live and take classes at SOU. I started with Academia Latina as a junior counselor in 2002. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. That experience really opened my eyes to what empowering and working with youth looked like and what impact it could have on a group of students. Back then the program averaged from 20 to 30 students. It took a long time to earn the trust of the Latino community so that they would allow their children to come to SOU and basically let a group of complete strangers show them what a college education could do for them. Once we got parent and community support, we saw the shift. As we built a rapport and trust with the families in Southern Oregon, the numbers started growing. To be able to host a program that serves over 200 students for a week at SOU is really special. Students have been impacted from Lane to Klamath to Jackson and Josephine counties. We want to continue to build a more meaningful and engaging programs so students want to come back, and their younger siblings, cousins or neighbors want to come. It really has been incredible to see the growth of this program. When a parent says, “This experience made a positive change for my son or daughter,” there’s no way to put a value on that.
Q: You’ve followed former Academia Latina students. What have you found?
Chavez-Baez: We’ve found out some really interesting and incredible data. In the state of Oregon only 69 percent of Latino students graduate from high school. Students who attend Academia Latina average about 90 percent. Out of those 90 percent, we’re averaging about 75 percent college enrollment; the average in Oregon is 40 percent. And our students have a 45 percent college completion rate, where in the state of Oregon it’s only 11 percent. This program has opened the opportunity for students to excel. That’s something that we’re really, really proud of.
We also measure high school completion rate of each class. Our graduation rate for students who participated in 2012 and 2013 was 95 percent and 94 percent respectively. So we must be doing something right, but we don’t take all the credit. They get this college experience. They buy into the concept that education is important. Their parents see that and they continue to push their students to something bigger and better.
Q: Another project you’re involved in is Pirates to Raiders, Hornets to Raiders and four other schools to Raiders program. How does that program help pre-college students?
Chavez-Baez: We follow these students for five years from the moment they come into this program in the eighth grade. We provide academic support. We provide workshops for the parents. Part of our curriculum includes a day-long conference. We do after-school programming. We do field trips. Once they get to be juniors and seniors, we really focus the workshops on the skills that are necessary for them to be successful as they get ready to go to college. A critical component is the parent engagement; so making sure that these parents understand what we’re trying to do every step of the way, making sure that they understand what these grades mean, what their GPA really means, encouraging them to go into the schools and ask to be involved regardless of whether there’s a language barrier. We give them that courage, give them the I would say confidence. It’s OK if the language barrier is there. There will be people there to help them. We want parents to feel that this is a team effort, and at the end of the day when they see their student cross the stage that accomplishment is not just the student’s, it’s the family’s.
Q: How did you get to hold a master’s degree and have a job at SOU?
Chavez-Baez: I moved to this country when I was 10 years old. A lot of curves have been thrown at me and my family. I was undocumented at one point in my life, my mom was arrested by immigration when I was in high school. I use those experiences as assets and not barriers, using them to motivate me, to show people that immigrants are here to do something positive in our community, we’re here to make a positive difference. We’re here to open doors for others. I have a lot of people in my life who lent a hand at really critical points without asking for anything in return.
Q: Who gave you a hand?
Chavez-Baez: I can tell you the Zuna Johnsons of the world, Vicky Lavagnino or Marvin Woodard to name a few completely changed my life. My mom is the foundation of everything I’ve accomplished. They were there at critical points. Once I gained experience and my degree, it’s now my turn to pay back that genuine demonstration of love to others who are facing obstacles or who have had hard times. I think that really has been the mission of the work that I do.
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I was the president of Latino Student Union that did a lot of community engagement, culture and outreach to the students. We did a lot of work to celebrate our culture and let people know that Latinos are also here to make a difference. I’ve taken that experience and that vision, to create programs that will have a positive impact on our community.
Q: What do you say to a middle school student to inspire them?
Chavez-Baez: I would start by asking them what they want to do. What do they see themselves doing? What are their interests? What is success to them? Success is defined so differently from person to person. When you ask a family what success means to them, dad will say something, mom will say something else and the kid will say something completely different. Letting them know that if they really put the effort in, regardless of their surroundings, if they’re willing to put themselves out there and ask for help when they need it, that they will accomplish success. I really do believe that.
Q: What do you know about getting minority and first-generation students ready for college?
Chavez-Baez: We’ve learned that minority students have academic deficits. We’ve discovered that the sciences and math seem to be barriers for a lot of our students. That ties back to being a second language learner and not having that level of English comprehension in writing and reading. However, once you provide support and the tools for students, they can excel. When I say tools, I mean access to technology, calculators, the internet where they can do research, where they can do reading. Students can excel, but there has to be academic support and the resources for those students to be successful.
Q: And the future?
Chavez-Baez: SOU is doing something positive and really empowering. Because of our community, because of our partners, because of the trust that we’ve been able to earn, we’re delivering. The school districts are starting to value that, and that’s what makes these programs so successful. Once again, I need to reiterate the importance of our partnerships and our networks because without those I don’t think we’d be anywhere near where we are at today. There are great things that will come in the future.
Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.
Jonathan Chavez-Baez bio
Jonathan Chavez-Baez was born in Cuautla Morelos, Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 10.
He is graduate of Phoenix High School and received his Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Southern Oregon University and his Masters of Arts in Education: Educational Leadership and Policy in Higher Education from Portland State University.
For nine years, Chavez-Baez has worked for Southern Oregon University as coordinator for minority outreach programs. He is devoted to working with the Latino community to increase high school graduation, college enrollment, parent engagement, assistance to undocumented students, and programs for underrepresented students.
He is the co-director of Academia Latina at Southern Oregon University and a member of the Oregon Community Foundation Latino Partnership, Southern Oregon Latino Scholarship Fund, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Cultural Connections, Hispanic Interagency Committee, and Listo Advisory Council. In March 2017, Chavez-Baez was appointed to the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs by Governor Kate Brown.