Fusion of music and technology draws teens to 4-H Mariachi STEAM Camp

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As baseball fans mingled before a Corvallis Knights game on the Oregon State University campus in late July, a group of teens arrived from the west.

They carried violins and trumpets and acoustic guitars, and music stands and a microphone and amplifier that they set up on a grassy area on the plaza outside the front of Goss Stadium.

On the front of their matching light blue T-shirts was a graphic featuring “MARIACHI” in all capital letters and a drawing of a trumpet. Below the trumpet were the words: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

With the temperature at nearly 100 degrees, they lifted their instruments and began a concert that would fill the plaza with mariachi music for more than 30 minutes, with a break to allow the trumpet section to play the national anthem on the field before the first pitch. A crowd grew as the students played on, with the end of each song punctuated by applause.

The concert was a highlight of the experience provided by 4-H Mariachi STEAM Camp, an initiative that began in 2017 with OSU Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program in Washington County as one of the founding partners.

According to organizers, the summer residential camp brings students to the OSU campus to expose them to technology through their interest in mariachi music. The students’ days are structured down to the minute, with music rehearsals sandwiched around technology, academic and college prep workshops. The campers also completed a community service project, assembling 100 STEM kits to be given away for elementary school students at Corvallis-area free lunch sites.

The camp has traditionally drawn most of its participants from high schools in Washington County. The majority of the students are Latino/a/x.

“It has been a delight the last past five years of working with truly exceptional, gifted students,” said Romanna Flores, a 4-H volunteer in Washington County who co-founded 4-H Mariachi STEAM Camp. “We are very blessed.”

Camp builds confidence

Flores‘ co-founders include fellow Intel Corp. employee Richard Flores (no relation), Leslie Nuñez, orchestra and mariachi director for the Forest Grove School District, and Dan Bosshardt, who formerly led Mariachi Una Voz, an after-school music program in Hillsboro.

It was through Bosshardt that Miguel Escalera, one of the trumpet players in Mariachi Una Voz, learned about the first 4-H Mariachi STEAM Camp. Escalera attended the camp in both 2017 and ‘18 before graduating from Glencoe High School in 2019. Now a maintenance management specialist in the U.S. Marine Corps, he came back this year to volunteer as a music leader.

“I’ve already seen the difference in the confidence in the students in the trumpet section after one day,” Escalera said on the camp’s second day. “When I was here as a student, I knew I wasn’t the best trumpet player, but building confidence with mentors and instructors really helped me. I’m trying to do the same thing now.”

Charlie Garcia, who attends the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where he is majoring in music education with a concentration in mariachi, was another camp alumnus who returned to OSU this year to volunteer as a music leader. Garcia, who plays the violin, mentored students in all sections during rehearsals. Both he and Escalera played their instruments, as well.

“I see in the students the same excitement toward the music that we had,” Garcia said. “And they’re even more courageous. I didn’t want to sing. Today, one of the kids volunteered to sing. I thought that was really cool.”

The experiences on campus, combined with the focus of music, gives students an authentic taste of collegiate life, according to Flores, an IT system analyst at Intel, which has 22,000 employees at its campuses in Hillsboro. She was interested in the idea of a camp that combined music with technology because Latino/a/x students score lower than national averages on math and science tests.

Enduring the pandemic

The camp was held from 2017-2019. In 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 altering nearly all aspects of daily life, a virtual option called COVID Corridos substituted for the camp. A Mexican storytelling/poetic musical tradition, a corrido is a ballad that typically describes a tragic event or circumstance.

COVID Corridos was organized by Victor Villegas, technology and media support coordinator for the Extension and Engagement Computing Unit. Since it started, Villegas has been OSU’s representative, liaison and mentor for the camp and music instructor for the trumpet section.

Alice Phillips, 4-H youth educator in Washington County, coordinates camp logistics and extracurricular activities, handles volunteer and youth screening and enrollment procedures and manages the purchase of all camp supplies and materials. Ezequiel Lopez-Reyes, Juntos/Open Campus coordinator for Washington County, and Extension intern Anahi Sanchez delivered a college planning workshop at this year's camp.

4-H Mariachi STEAM Camp paused in 2021 before returning this year. Plans call for it to continue in 2023.

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