Summer camp lights the way to higher education

Young Latina dancers show off their folkloric culture in handmade dresses. Photo by Tamara Preciado.
Young Latina dancers show off their folkloric culture in handmade dresses. Photo by Tamara Preciado.
Soccer and other sports and games help campers build self confidence. Photo by Bob Rost.
Soccer and other sports and games help campers build self confidence. Photo by Bob Rost.

Young people from across Oregon who sign up for the OSU 4-H International Summer Camp must do what many people consider the most terrifying thing ever: perform on-stage in front of an audience.

Every evening, at this quiet camp in the woods, the open amphitheater comes alive as the young, primarily Latino, campers dance, play the guitar, sing, tell jokes — anything that gets the job done.

It adds up to an experience that builds self-confidence for the campers, a main objective of the camp. It’s a skill that is necessary for many campers as they pursue higher education goals.

"We tell campers that they must start over, reset their minds, and take responsibility," said camp director Mario Magaña, who also is an OSU associate professor and 4-H regional educator. Self-confidence is a necessity.

Isaac Camacho said he signed up for summer camp just for fun. "I wasn't a good student in middle school, but I made a U-turn in high school. Going to summer camp pushed me in the right direction." That direction led him to the Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship, with which he was honored.

"The most important thing I learned was to keep moving forward and make the best better," he said. "Don't stop if you're good; you have to want to be better."

High school students who attend the camps take direction from college-age counselors with experience getting into colleges and universities and finding financial aid. The counselors, many of whom are also Latino, explain required paperwork and share information on how students in higher education live, work, eat, and have fun.

In the last five years, four Oregon 4-H camp counselors were among 1,000 young people chosen annually from across the nation to receive Gates scholarships. The scholarships provide academic, financial and social support for low-income and minority students to earn their undergraduate degree, and, if desired, complete graduate studies as well.

Each summer, about 300 elementary, middle and high school students from across the state stay in cabins for the five-day resident camps at the 4-H Education Center west of Salem. In addition to information about colleges, the camp offers hands-on workshops, sports, inspirational speakers and Mexican folkloric dance, poetry, music, and history.

"In Oregon, approximately 72 percent of Latino children live in low-income families, and most would not be able to participate without camp scholarships," Magaña said. "It's important that successful Latinos, such as John Haroldson, district attorney of Benton County, visit camp to talk about their careers."

Students hear that professions such as science, engineering, technology, education, agriculture, and natural resource and wildlife management are within their reach.

Campers are encouraged to come back in years to follow, and many do. When they reach high school or college age, many come back to serve as counselors, supervisors and instructors. It’s a way to pay back the community, Magaña says.

Although the Latino summer camps are popular and have seen a steady growth in numbers (from 64 in 2004 to 324 this year), challenges in recruiting Latino youth still exist. "Many of the parents have not had a camp experience themselves and do not understand how camp can benefit their children," Magaña said. "Many families have no transportation and cannot afford the minimum fee of $25 or $50."

Many campers, including Olivia Alvarez, are shy when they arrive at camp, but activities like soccer, volleyball, basketball, archery and canoeing help to forge friendships and unity. While at camp Alvarez overcame homesickness and stage fright and returned for another six summers. Another camper, Gonzalo Soto Tapia, said the camp works to make everyone feel included.

"When we do sports, the whole camp grows together, and you feel like a part of it." Soto Tapia plans to attend Portland State University and looks forward to becoming a cardiac surgeon and psychologist.

Mexican leaders in education have taken note of Oregon's International Summer Camp. A faculty exchange brings leaders from Mexico who are interested in how to expose young people to traditional Mexican culture. Flor Lizbeth Hernández Sierra runs the Bi-National Migrant Educational Program for the state of Puebla in southern Mexico and hopes to replicate the Oregon 4-H successes.

"The camps open student minds to multicultural learning," Hernández Sierra said. "And, our Mexican teachers find a global panoramic about the education and needs of binational and bilingual students."

Magaña is proud that the camp helps create a large group of well-educated Latino leaders in Oregon.

"We are able to change attitudes of hundreds of kids who have had no hope for higher education," he said. "We tell them not to expect to get a scholarship just because they are Latino, and at the same time we inspire them to realize that nothing is beyond their reach."

OSU 4-H International Summer Camp website

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