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College Life 101 : Fullerton Camp Teaches Migrant Workers’ Kids the ABCs of Academia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There aren’t many 14-year-olds who know what they’ll be doing in five years, but Rufino Manzanares is one of them.

“I want to go to UCLA,” Rufino said. “Or Cal State Fullerton. . . . I want to get a soccer scholarship.”

College is a distant goal for most kids barely into their teens, and it’s often an especially lofty dream for a migrant worker’s child like Rufino. Yet this summer, he is getting a chance to go to college through Project BEST--Basic Education Skills for Tomorrow.

The project invites 35 children of current or former migrant workers in Orange and San Diego counties to spend three weeks at Cal State Fullerton, the only college in the two counties to offer the program. Teen-agers--all incoming high school freshmen--take classes, play sports and live in student housing at University Village near campus.

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“A lot of these students tend to drop out before 10th grade,” said Isaac Cardenas, a coordinator for the 6-year-old, federally funded program. “We want them to set their goals high now, before high school, to give them the skills and desire to persevere.”

Cardenas, chairman of the Chicano studies department at Cal State Fullerton, said school counselors recommend students for the program whose parents moved seasonally within the last five years to work in agriculture or fishing.

Most of the students this year are from schools north of San Juan Capistrano, including Newport-Mesa, Orange and Placentia-Yorba Linda unified school districts, Cardenas said.

Several participants from past years now attend Cal State Fullerton, Orange Coast College and other local schools, he said. It costs nearly $1,300 to put each student through the program.

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An academic with graying hair and a ready smile, Cardenas directs the program with Nancy Porras Hein, of the state Education Department’s migrant education program.

“Students get a chance to see what college is all about, and find that they can fit in there,” Hein said.

The program brings in students who are succeeding in school as well as others who need encouragement, Cardenas said. Students take classes in math, computers and language arts.

But what would college life be like without parties and sports? Cardenas said those aspects of campus living are also part of the program.

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On a recent afternoon, for example, Rufino and other students kicked around a few soccer balls on one of the university’s grass practice fields. They picked up soccer pointers from Jose Luis Vasquez and Andrew Molina of the Salsa, a team in the American Professional Soccer League that plays at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Stadium.

Girls and boys laughed and teased each other on the field, although most had only met the day before.

During a break in the game, Samantha Cruz, 14, said she never had opportunities to join a summer school or camp program before Project BEST. She moved to Orange County from Mexico in 1989.

“I’m making new friends, and we share things about ourselves and we have a lot in common,” said Samantha, of Huntington Beach. Neither Samantha nor Rufino had ever been on a college campus before, they added.

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Current college students serve as advisers and counselors to the youths in the program. “This is a chance to help the community, and give something back as a university student,” Cal State Fullerton senior Jose De Leon said. The advisers are role models, guides and friends for the teen-agers away from home.

Cardenas said few of the students have been away from home for long, and parents are wary of letting their children leave. Samantha said her parents approve of education--but did they want her to spend three weeks with 34 other teens?

Welllllllll ,” she said, with a shy smile. “They did finally let me come.”

Organizers involve parents in the program, Cardenas said. They are invited to picnics, and teachers tell parents how students can continue their academic pursuits.

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“What we find is that in general, these parents are supportive of education,” Cardenas said, “but because they don’t have educations themselves, they don’t know the mechanics of pursuing a higher education.”

The program also gives students a support network, Cardenas said. People often expect little from children of migrant workers, he said, so organizers must show the teen-agers that they can reach college like any other students.

Rufino, of Anaheim, said the program pushes him to reach his dream of college--even though pressure from classmates, who don’t think he should study hard, makes it tough to succeed in his school.

“In seventh grade, I got a 4.0 grade point average, so guys would say to me, ‘Hey schoolboy!’ ” Rufino said. “I’ve felt peer pressure. But I just keep on going.”

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