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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAcademia Latina students, from left, Astrid Onesto, Jaqueline Gonzalez and Kelly Arana gather outside the Siskiyou Hall dormitory at Southern Oregon UniversityThursday.

Academia Latina: Creating possibilities for life after high school

Rocio Moctezuma’s parents always told her that school is the key to her success. Having achieved a sixth-grade education themselves, her mom and dad encouraged their children to go further.

“From a very young age, my dad always wanted us to strive to be the best we could be,” said Moctezuma, who will enter her senior year at North Medford High School this month.

The oldest daughter of four children found her motivation early, but her path of Advanced Placement classes, early enrollment at Southern Oregon University and scholarship applications required support that her family was underequipped to offer, she said.

It’s one of the reasons she comes to Academia Latina, an academic and leadership summer camp for Latino-identifying students in grades seven and up. The weeklong experience, during which students live in dorms and take college-style classes, has been a source of support and community building for Latinos since its start in 2001.

“I wanted to see what life after high school could be like,” Moctezuma said. “And my mom couldn’t tell me that.”

She first undertook the Academia Latina application process, which includes an essay, two recommendation letters and a minimum 2.75 GPA (higher for returning attendees), to attend the summer after her freshman year. She’s been back every year since.

Recurring participation is common and an important part of keeping the two programs, called Academia Latina and Academia Leadership, going. Those who participate in Academia Latina from seventh through ninth grade frequently return as junior and senior counselors. Even after they finish college, alumni can come back to work as residents, supervising the counselors.

Even one of the program’s co-directors, Jonathan Chavez Baez, is an alumnus. He said out of the exposure to dorm life, college-style classes and community service, the best product of Academia Latina comes in the form of relationships.

“That’s the most powerful thing that’s created here,” he said. “It’s really, really empowering.”

Classes throughout the week touch on topics of social justice and cultural celebration. This year, Ballet Folklorico lessons were included in that schedule.

But students also come away with a greater sense of the diversity of cultures and experiences within the Latino community, said Astrid Onesto, a Phoenix High student.

“Every Hispanic household has different traditions,” she said, whether the families are from different states in Mexico or different countries in Latin America.

Jacqueline Gonzalez, whose family immigrated from Guatemala, first came to Academia Latina as a seventh-grader in 2011. She’s now entering her third year at SOU — she’s the first in her family to attend college. She said sharing stories and experiences can help students in their personal lives as well as schooling.

“At this age, they feel sometimes like they don’t belong,” she said of the younger students. After hearing each other’s stories, she said, “they realize, ‘I’m really not alone in this place.’”

In conversations about obstacles, whether they be mental illness, immigration or family issues, the takeaways typically focus on overcoming those challenges.

“How can we move forward and not just be stuck in one place?” she said.

Academia Latina as a program also continues to move forward: This year, additional funding helped boost Academia Latina from 131 students last year to 180 participants. Students from Lane, Klamath and Deschutes counties are in the mix.

This year, Kelly Arana became the first second-generation Academia student to attend — her mother participated when she was a student.

Her mother had her when she was still a teenager and did not go to college, Arana said, and that motivates her to learn and push through her shyness at camp.

“I just want to make her proud,” the eighth-grader at Talent Middle School said.

Moctezuma echoed the same sentiment about her parents when talking about her motivation. Surrounded by her fellow camp-goers, she talked about the belief that drives her to work hard.

“In the end, it will pay off,” she said. “Staying persistent and motivated, that’s what you need to keep you going and that is what in the end will make you successful.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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