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Top Latino Students Honored by Foundation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russell Calleros was a tad nervous. He was about to address some of the top Latino high school students from Southern California, who were being honored by the Youth Opportunities Foundation. In fact, he was one of them.

After performances by Mariachi Olimpico and the Peruvian Ensemble and speeches by the master of ceremonies and event sponsors, it was finally Calleros’ turn.

Speaking as a representative of the honored students, Calleros said, “Greeting post-high school life, we will face many new challenges of adulthood.” Calleros, like the other students, was being recognized at the luncheon for outstanding scholastic and leadership achievements.

“We can do anything that we want, anything that we feel like doing,” Calleros said. “We can make an impression not just on our community but on the entire world around us.”

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Calleros, 17, who was valedictorian and student body president at California High School in Whittier, is on his way to Stanford University to major in political science. His fellow YOF honorees will attend colleges and universities across the country.

The Youth Opportunities Foundation has honored 6,000 students over 26 years, most of whom were in the top 3% of their graduating class.

More than 1,500 students applied for the YOF recognition this year and 330 were selected statewide. The majority will also receive scholarships ranging from $100 to $500, said Felix Castro, executive director of YOF.

The YOF selection is “a recognition for excellence,” Castro said. “We truly seek out the very best. We’ve taken a lot of heat for that,” he added, referring to criticism of the program for passing over other well-qualified students. “But we figure the very best students are most deserving. We give a message to other students that excellence pays.”

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In addition to leadership achievements, Castro said, students are selected by their grade-point averages, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and class rank. SAT scores for the YOF Exceptional Scholars were as high as 1,500 and averaged 1,100, about 200 points above the national average. The highest possible score on the test is 1,600.

The Los Angeles Times and the Bank of America sponsored the June banquet for 169 YOF scholars and their parents from Los Angeles and Orange counties at Luminarias Restaurant in Monterey Park.

For YOF scholar Alejandro Hernandez, 18, life as a college freshman will be a lot different from his routine as a high school student. For one thing, he won’t have to ride an RTD bus from South-Central Los Angeles to Cathedral High north of downtown as he did for three years. He will live in a dormitory at Loyola Marymount University in western Los Angeles.

The valedictorian, with a 3.95 grade-point average in a class of 106 students, wants to join his older brother at Loyola and his younger sister in starting a family contracting business. He and his brother will work as civil engineers and his sister will be the architect.

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Delia Mendoza, 18, didn’t even know what a valedictorian was until her senior year, when another student asked if she was going for the title.

Once she realized that she had the top grade-point average at Phineas Banning High School in Wilmington, she simply continued what she had been doing--challenging herself by taking college preparatory courses and doing well in them.

But it wasn’t always so bright for Mendoza, the third of six children. Born in Mexico, she came to the United States when she was 14 months old but returned to her native town of Huejucar, Jalisco, when she was in the third grade. When Mendoza came back at 11 years, “it was like a total restart again,” she said.

Mendoza said she had to go through English as a Second Language classes to relearn English.

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“I used to cry from the frustration because my papers were always marked up. And now I’m in advanced placement classes,” she said.

In fact, Mendoza took advanced placement courses in English, U.S. history, studio art, Spanish and calculus during her three years at Banning. Her grade-point average is 3.97 overall, but it is 4.28 when calculated with advanced placement credits, which are one grade point above standard and are recognized for college-level credits by many college admissions departments. She said she received her only B in an advanced placement English class, in which no student had earned an A.

Mendoza, the valedictorian of her class of 551 students, is now gearing up for her freshman year at UCLA. She plans to major in business and medicine.

Mendoza said her parents encouraged her to get an education to avoid some of the situations they faced at her age.

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“The suffering they went through, the injustice they went through . . . put a flame inside of me that really wanted to reach the highest I could to change my life and that for my kids in the future,” she said.


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