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Beating the odds: Trip to the White House helps two Utah students chart a future

SALT LAKE CITY — As last year's president of Cottonwood High School's chapter of Latinos in Action, Stephanie Pesantes saw the difference a little encouragement can make for young students.

Two or three times a week, Pesantes and other members of the group tutored kindergartners at Roosevelt and Lincoln elementary schools, coaching them as they went from knowing one or two letters of the alphabet to being able to read small books.

Perhaps what was most satisfying, Pesantes said, was knowing her efforts might someday have a broader impact, helping students learn how to decipher not just words on a page, but critical life decisions.

"It was cool when they would say, 'I want to be just like you when I grow up,' because it kind of shows that you're a role model to them," Pesantes said. "And that's kind of our goal. We should tell them that we like to read. We should tell them that we like to go to school, because they're the next generation. We should inspire them and be good role models to them."

Last week, Pesantes and Ronald Morales, a graduate of Kearns High School, were invited to a summit hosted by first lady Michelle Obama centered on helping first-generation college students finish a post-high school education.

Latinos in Action, a Utah-based student leadership and college preparation program, selected the two Salt Lake students to attend the summit because of their service to the community and because they "beat the odds" by enrolling in college this fall, according to Executive Director Jose Enriquez.

The summit included remarks by President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It also featured a workshop on FAFSA, the application for federal financial aid, and a panel with other first-generation college students about what to expect after high school.

Pesantes is planning to begin a biochemistry degree at Utah State University this fall with the goal of becoming an orthodontist. She said what stood out to her about the summit was Michelle Obama's answer to a student who asked how to respond to those who discourage them from pursuing their career goals.

"She said, 'Those are the kinds of people that you shouldn't let stop you from aspiring (to) what you want in your life. You just have to keep going and know that you want it for yourself and not let anyone stop you,'" Pesantes said. "It kind of helped me feel like if I work hard enough, I can be just as great as her. I'm not one bit worried about my future and I know that I will do great things."

Pesantes said she hopes her efforts will instill a desire in her 11-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister to pursue college degrees.

"The event was for first-generation college students. That, to me, is really important because I want to be an example to my siblings," she said. "I guess that's just my goal: to keep moving forward and never let anything stop me, and to actually make a difference in the world and to help other people."

Enriquez, who attended the summit with Pesantes, said it helped the students network with each other and learn what challenges many students have had to overcome.

"Not only was it motivational, but they got to meet each other. You get to meet other students who also beat the odds from across the nation," he said. "It was incredible just to meet them, to hear their stories."

Morales was unable to attend the summit for family reasons, but he was invited for having spent last year tutoring young students and doing other community service projects through Latinos in Action and United Way of Salt Lake at Kearns High School. He plans to attend Salt Lake Community College this fall and is also contemplating joining the military.

As the first in his family to plan on getting a postsecondary education, Morales said being involved in those organizations helped him understand how the college enrollment process works, something his family couldn't teach him.

"College is always something I had in mind, but it's been very difficult because I'm first-generation American," Morales said. "With Latinos in Action, it seemed like a goal that was much more attainable, and I knew what I had to do to enter college, and it wasn't some mystery that was big and daunting.

"One of the main things is tuition," he said, "and people only hear about certain scholarships for having high academics or being in sports or something like that. But through Latinos in Action, I found out about so many other scholarships for so many other things."

Over 40 percent of students at Kearns High School — more than 900 of them — identify as Hispanic, according to the Utah State Office of Education. It creates high demand for seats in the Latinos in Action college prep course, which has a capacity of only 200 students.

Kearns has developed other college preparation and leadership courses for Polynesian and refugee students, according to Steve Whatcott, the school's United Way of Salt Lake director. He said a chance to meet the first lady or a scholarship to a local university can make all the difference for many students, but it requires support from school leaders and family members.

"I think the best we can do is to continue to provide opportunities like going back to Washington, D.C., or going to a leadership camp or getting scholarship opportunities," Whatcott said. "Then to really work with the community — the parents, the families, the grandparents — to help them take advantage of these, to help them see that they really do belong, that they deserve every bit as much these opportunities as other students."

Enriquez said Latinos in Action is preparing to host a similar summit specifically for Utah's first-generation college students to pass on what was covered in the summit hosted by Michelle Obama. He said he hopes Utah's colleges and universities, as well as the students themselves, will recognize the value of increasing access to higher education for first-time college families.

"These first-generational students, they've gone through a lot. They've seen a lot and have beat the odds," he said. "But sometimes, what we forget is that they also bring a lot to the table. They come with so much already. It's an asset model, not a deficit model."


Twitter: MorganEJacobsen