“It was never a question that I would go to college,” said Chief Diversity Officer Jilma Meneses of Portland State University. “It was never a question that my daughters would go to college.”
Meneses shared that certitude before a crowd of young Latino students and their parents at a recent gathering held at Columbia Gorge Community College in Hood River, designed to engage and empower minority students and families to pursue higher education.
Meneses, who is Nicaraguan and was born in Mexico, visited Hood River to bring inspiration to others along with a personal invitation to “make any sacrifice necessary” to become well-educated.
More than 125 teens, college students and their parents responded to the invitation.
The Dec. 5 meeting, which included a free dinner and child care, offered interested families a chance to ask direct questions about higher education, and was conducted in Spanish so that monolingual parents could feel fully involved.
Meneses and PSU Admissions Counselor Mario Mesquita responded to the enthusiastic crowd by creating a lively, inclusive conversation.
Both Meneses and Mesquita specialize in innovative outreach techniques, recognizing that traditional college efforts such as college fairs and glossy brochures often do not effectively “connect” with minority families. Including parents in the process early on is a top priority for both.
“Some parents need help to understand the value of completing high school and continuing on in school,” said Meneses. She also had a message to the teens in the audience: “There is no excuse for not completing your education.”
Prior to the evening gathering the PSU team gave the News a preview of its presentation during an afternoon interview.
“For people who have been marginalized, traditional college recruitment methods are not working,” Meneses said. “Our communities need advocates. They need to be empowered to go to school.”
She noted that many minority students are already discouraged by the time they reach high school and are still dropping out at an alarming rate as compared to their white counterparts.
“They are lacking self-confidence — they have lost their voice,” she said. “But, they can learn to be self-empowering — to make themselves visible.”
Meneses comes from a long line of inspiring and empowering women. She credits her Nicaraguan grandmother, Leonore, born in 1905, for passing along the visionary desire for, and emphasis on education: “She was a woman ahead of her time,” Meneses said, noting that her grandmother worked long hours for years to ensure her daughters could go to school.
That single-minded drive carried through to the family’s future generations.
After completing her college degree, Meneses gained extensive experience in helping under-served communities while coordinating nine Head Start programs for Hispanic migrant farm workers in central California.
“I saw so much oppression; so much poverty; I knew I had to get involved at a higher level to make an impact,” she said. She went on to complete a law degree at Lewis & Clark College in 1992.
Mesquita undertakes his role as an admissions counselor with the same fervor.
“I want these students to know that they can apply and that there are people willing to help — both to gain access to higher education and to help them make it through to completion,” he said. “I want them to learn to be self-advocates.”
The pair presented many of the help options available through Portland State University while CGCC counselors were also on hand to guide students interested in community college.
Counselors from Hood River Valley Legalization Project also offered information on immigration questions tied to schooling.
Students in attendance came from HRVHS, CGCC and several middle schools. Community volunteer Ted James helped coordinate the event.
When asked what the best result of the evening might be, Meneses said, “Even if we reach only one person today, that is one more advocate for tomorrow.”
For more information on PSU’s diversity program visit pdx.edu/diversity/ home.