COUNTYWIDE : Foundation Honors 13 Latino Students

Thirteen Ventura County students joined other top Latino high school graduates from across California at a banquet Sunday in honor of their scholastic achievements.

The Youth Opportunities Foundation, a nonprofit group set up to recognize Latino students of outstanding academic records, held the banquet in Los Angeles for students selected from about 2,000 applicants.

The students carried an assortment of scholarly tags--valedictorian, National Merit finalist and class president. But Felix Castro, executive director of the Youth Opportunities Foundation, said they could all fit under one heading.

"These students deserve to be called the best," Castro said. "They're all extraordinary."

Most of the 389 honored students are in the top 3% of their graduating classes. About 230 of them are from Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The foundation, set up 27 years ago to honor outstanding scholastic and leadership achievements by Latinos, scores applicants according to class rank, their grade-point averages and their Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. SAT scores for the students were as high as 1,520 and averaged 1,100, about 200 points above the national average. The highest possible score on the test is 1,600.

Joel Villasenor, 18, valedictorian of his class of 540 at Channel Islands High School in Oxnard, said he was delighted and surprised to receive the letter from the foundation.

In September, Villasenor will attend Harvard University to study international relations. But a move across the country, he said, will be easy compared to the one he made with his parents when he emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, at age 10. At the time, he said, he spoke "only a few words of English."

Danielle Torres, a 17-year old graduate of Fillmore High School, said she's going to Pepperdine University in Malibu because it is close to home. She turned down a scholarship at UC Santa Cruz to stay within 50 miles of her family.

"I like Pepperdine because it's small, like Fillmore," said Torres, who plans to major in psychology.

Torres, who chalked up a 3.80 grade-point average and graduated fourth in her class, said she was excited to receive the honor because she is "proud of her heritage."

Other honorees were Sonya Garcia and Elena Rodriguez, Buena High School, Ventura; Roberto Casillas and Edward Kaspar, Hueneme High School, Port Hueneme; Veronica Marquez and David Valenzuela, Santa Paula High School; Lori Lopez, Newbury Park High School; Michelle Mulet, Royal High School, Simi Valley; Steven Garcia, St. Bonaventure High School, Ventura; Joseph Rodriguez, Santa Clara High School, and Alexandra Vargas, Ventura High School.

According to statistics compiled by the foundation, 31% of the top Latino students will major in engineering, 21% in medical fields and 15% in the liberal arts. Business and political science were also among the most popular choices.

The Los Angeles Times and Bank of America sponsored the dinner Sunday.

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