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EDUCATION : YOF Scholar Program Is a Story of Successes

Times Staff Writer

Adriana Martinez has lived in a federally funded housing project since the age of 3. Her father moved out of their apartment when she was 13, leaving her mother to support two teen-age girls on wages from her job in a school cafeteria.

Martinez, now 18, overcame those obstacles to finish first scholastically in her senior class of 900 at Roosevelt High School and to be accepted by Stanford University. She views her education “not as a means of making money, but as a means of obtaining the power to be heard, to be respected, and to use that power not for (my) own ego, but to influence others in my quest to help out other unfortunate human beings.”

The Roosevelt student body president is one of 180 students from Los Angeles and Orange counties named “Exceptional Scholars” by the Youth Opportunities Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages Latino students to pursue a college education. They were honored July 2 at a luncheon sponsored by The Times at Luminarias restaurant.

The foundation selected 345 students statewide out of 1,600 applicants for the honor, which is given “in recognition of an exemplary high school record of scholarship and leadership,” said YOF Executive Director Felix Castro. The students were chosen on the basis of grades, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and involvement in school and community.

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“We want to promote excellence and accentuate the positive,” Castro said. “We want to show our own communities that we have very top-notch, excellent students.” He said that too often people hear only of the negative things in the community, such as gangs, drugs, dropouts and failure. “We are not talking about failure,” he said. “We’re talking about success.”

Many previous award winners have gone on to successful careers. They include Superior Court Judge Richard Montes; Moctesuma Esparza, co-producer of the film “The Milagro Beanfield War;” Univision Vice President Emma Carrasco, and Los Angeles attorney Dan Garcia.

Another of this year’s honorees, David Campos, is, like Martinez, no stranger to adversity. But also like her, he did not let it hold him back.

Campos, 19, had been a top student in his hometown of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, excelling in a rigorous academic program with up to nine courses a semester. In 1985, he and his family immigrated to the United States. His father, a prominent meteorologist in Guatemala, had to take a job in a Los Angeles furniture factory to support his wife, son and two daughters.

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Although Campos had taken second-year algebra in Guatemala, he was enrolled in remedial math classes here as part of the English as a Second Language program. However, once Campos learned English, nothing could stop him. He was the valedictorian at Jefferson High in Los Angeles, where he ranked No. 1 scholastically in a senior class of 450. He was accepted at Stanford, where he will study international relations with the hope of becoming a lawyer or politician.

Nineteen of the honorees--the most from any single school--came from Garfield High in East Los Angeles, which has attracted much attention because of math teacher Jaime Escalante and the movie featuring his teaching methods, “Stand and Deliver.”

Garfield graduate Jaime Sandoval, 17, said he did not let the publicity distract him from his studies. When journalists and others trooped through his calculus class (he had Garfield’s other calculus teacher, Benjamin Jimenez), the students generally paid little mind. “You focus on the lesson,” he said.

Sandoval has indeed done that. He ranked third in his class of 800 and will attend UC Berkeley in the fall, majoring in business administration.

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He wasn’t always a top student. In elementary school, he got some Cs and Ds. But in junior high, he said, some friends told him of the importance of going to college. His mother, who received only an elementary school education in Mexico, began reading up on colleges so she could tell her son more about them. After that, he said, “I really wanted to go.”

Martinez also credits her mother, who earned the equivalent of a high school diploma a few years ago, for motivating and supporting her.

Martinez, also a co-captain of the girls varsity cross-country team at Roosevelt, follows in the footsteps of her sister Irma, a 1988 Exceptional Scholar who attends Princeton University. But she won’t follow too closely.

Martinez applied to nine colleges--Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Brown among them--and was accepted by all but Harvard.

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“I eliminated Princeton,” she said, “because . . . I felt that it would be a better growing experience for both of us to go to different schools.” Martinez will study chemistry and international relations at Stanford. “As weird as it sounds, I’ll probably either go to law school or medical school,” she said.

Being on the same campus with an older sister won’t bother Elizabeth Paniagua.

The 17-year-old valedictorian at San Fernando High chose UCLA over three other colleges. That is where her 23-year-old sister, Sally, studies biology. They are not likely to be in the same classes, however. Elizabeth plans to major in economics.

Paniagua said that her Mexican-born parents, with elementary school educations, wanted more for their children. Consequently, she said, “I was always directed toward college.”

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There appeared to be only one direction for Katella High student Michael Sanchez, and the path was well-worn.

Sanchez, 17, is the youngest of seven children born to Ignacio and Maria Sanchez of Anaheim. His three brothers and three sisters, who range in age from 20 to 30, are all attending or have graduated from college.

That’s a lot of footsteps to follow, but Sanchez met the challenge. He ranked No. 1 in his senior class of 380 and was accepted at Stanford, where he will study engineering.

Another honoree, Leticia Gomez, a valedictorian at Wilson High in Los Angeles, excelled in trigonometry and was voted student body president. She will also major in engineering at Stanford.

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Olivia Trevino, the student newspaper editor at San Gabriel Mission High, is concerned with human rights issues and formed an Amnesty International chapter at her school. She will major in either political science or foreign languages at UC Berkeley.

These role models for today’s youth advised others to persevere, have faith and work hard.

“You have to strive for excellence,” said Campos, “not just to help yourself, but to help those around you.” Campos believes that Latinos have a responsibility to succeed. “Our goal as Hispanics should not just be to enhance ourselves. It should be to enhance the bottom portion of our group.”


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