Opinion Columns & Blogs

Esther J. Cepeda: A dream come true for low-income parents

Esther Cepeda
Esther Cepeda 12/15/10

Rebeca Nieland had the highest educational aspirations for her daughter and two sons. But what she heard from her peers in their low-income Phoenix neighborhood was disheartening: College is too expensive, unattainable – you’d better get those kids ready to work.

This is the harsh reality for people like Rebeca and her husband, Ricardo, immigrants from Mexico who came here to work and raise children who would far exceed their own life trajectories.

Not only is the unattainability of post-secondary school intrinsically true – higher education is extraordinarily expensive and the path to enrollment is a complex web of red tape that tends to scare off those who have never been through the process – but when your own community tells you college for your kids is impossible, you tend to believe it.

We target primarily immigrant parents, the majority of whom are Latino, but also other backgrounds – we’ve put on sessions in English, Spanish and have translators so we can do the programs for parents in Arabic and Somali, Bhutanese and Burmese.”

Beatriz Rendon, Arizona State University vice president of educational outreach

Nieland, speaking to me in Spanish, recently recalled how defeated she’d felt every time she dared dream aloud about wanting to see her daughter go to college.

“I was very sad because everyone said, ‘Universidad? Aqui no se puede”’ – here university is just not doable – Nieland said. “But then, one day when my daughter was in seventh grade, her school announced a program for learning about how to get our kids into college, and I went and was enchanted. I couldn’t get enough, so every time they offered it, I went.”

Nieland lucked into Arizona State University’s “American Dream Academy,” a free eight-week program that teaches parents how they can take an active role in their children’s education and prepare them for post-secondary education.

According to Beatriz Rendon, Arizona State University’s vice president of educational outreach, the American Dream Academy has been operating for 10 years and in that time has graduated about 30,000 parents from over 70 schools in 20 districts across Arizona.

“We target primarily immigrant parents, the majority of whom are Latino, but also other backgrounds – we’ve put on sessions in English, Spanish and have translators so we can do the programs for parents in Arabic and Somali, Bhutanese and Burmese,” Rendon said.

The parent is the single most responsible person for their child throughout their educational career – parents can’t count on a teacher or principal. We work hard to convince parents that they are their child’s most important teacher and that college isn’t about a dream. It’s about goals – goals that can be accomplished through planning.

Alejandro Perilla, director of ASU Center for Community Development and Civil Rights

The Academy targets parents as soon as their children start kindergarten, with school outreach, fliers and calls – introduction calls, peer calls from past academy graduates, reminder calls and anything else to keep parents coming to class.

The program concludes with a graduation ceremony for the parents, marking their completion of coursework that covers everything from how to help students with homework, how to reach out to teachers and school counselors and how to look for resources that will help pay for college.

Today Nieland is an eight-time graduate of the program and has successfully helped her daughter attend and graduate from Arizona State University with a teaching degree. Her son is at ASU studying chemical engineering, and her youngest boy, a freshman in high school, is already on track to follow in his siblings’ footsteps.

Over 80 percent of children of parents who complete Arizona State’s American Dream Academy go on to college. The secret is the constant drumbeat of empowerment.

“I help with the calls, I tell people to keep coming to the sessions and it’s not always easy,” Nieland said. “I remember when I first started going, some parents would go to one session and then say, ‘I already went, why would I go back?’ because they didn’t understand that every session has new and different information. That’s why I still go – I know things change all the time and I want to make sure I know everything I can to make sure my youngest goes to college. Plus they do the sessions in Spanish, and it’s free. What more could you ask for?”

Alejandro Perilla, director of the ASU Center for Community Development and Civil Rights, says that according to their research, over 80 percent of the children of parents who complete the American Dream Academy go on to college.

He says that the secret to the program’s success isn’t rooted in what the parents are taught, but in the constant drumbeat of empowerment.

“The parent is the single most responsible person for their child throughout their educational career – parents can’t count on a teacher or principal,” Perilla said in an interview. “We work hard to convince parents that they are their child’s most important teacher and that college isn’t about a dream. It’s about goals – goals that can be accomplished through planning.”

Goals and planning neatly sum up the task of diversifying college campuses in meaningful ways. Any school that says they’ve “tried” but can’t get qualified, low-income minority students to enroll should look out west.

Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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