With his shaved head, earring and goatee, Alfredo Soto could easily be mistaken for a high school student as he enters a college-level physics session at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
He need only pull out his colored chalk to prove otherwise.
With yellow chalk, he writes “Midterm Review” on the board followed by a physics equation--this time in pink--that multiplies density, gravity and height.
He follows up with blue chalk, drawing a diagram to further clarify the day’s lesson.
Eleven high school students keep pace with the changing colors, furiously scribbling notes in a Cal Lutheran science lab where they have spent a good part of the summer preparing for college while earning high school credit.
They are among 53 high school students from Oxnard and Camarillo participating in Upward Bound at Cal Lutheran, a federally funded summer program that targets students who have the potential to be the first in their families to earn a college degree.
Not long ago, Soto was one of them, a high-potential high school student who needed a push to go on to college.
Through Upward Bound, the 22-year-old Oxnard resident received the academic skills and motivation he needed to get there.
“I didn’t think I’d go to college,” said Soto, who after graduating from Stanford University in the spring with a degree in mechanical engineering arranged to participate in the program as a teacher and evening tutor.
“No one in my family had ever been to college,” he said. “I was the first to leave Oxnard.”
This is the 19th consecutive summer Cal Lutheran has hosted Upward Bound.
Students arrived July 3 for the five-week program, and have attended classes in modular biology, foreign language, English literature, composition and algebra/pre-calculus.
They also have taken courses to prepare for college entrance exams and sharpen their study skills.
While the focus is on academics, a dual goal is to prepare students for higher education by giving them a taste of college living.
The students live in the campus dorms. They rise at 6 a.m., attend classes until 4:30 p.m. and go over their lessons during a mandatory two-hour study period.
They are back in their rooms by 10:30 p.m. with lights out at 11:15 p.m.
Almost all the students who come to the Upward Bound program finish it and return the next year, program director Oscar Cobian said.
The Cal Lutheran program has had 100% of its students graduate from high school, and about 70% have gone on to graduate from college, Cobian said.
Each year, about 33,000 students participate in more than 400 Upward Bound programs nationwide funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
For Soto, Upward Bound made such a difference in his life that he decided to give back some of the encouragement he received while participating in the program.
“Alfredo specifically asked to be able to be a resident so he could live on campus with the students and be here for them to answer their questions and help them with their homework,” Cobian said.
On a recent morning, halfway through the 2 1/2-hour class, Soto gave his students a five-minute break.
Roberto Rodriguez, a 17-year-old senior at Oxnard, forfeited his break so that he and his teacher could play with a laser pointer.
They turned out the lights. Soto pointed the red laser at a wall across the room while Rodriguez smashed two chalk erasers together, revealing a straight red line in the dust cloud. The two slipped in and out of Spanish as they learned and played together.
Blanco Canales, 17, returned from her break early to ask Soto’s advice on an art class she can take in college that does not require her to draw. He suggested art history.
Then, the Hueneme High School senior complained that her Upward Bound math teacher wouldn’t let her use a system she prefers to answer math problems on her midterm.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t use it, it means you can’t use it for her,” Soto advised. “Use it to check your answers if you think it works.”
Soto knows firsthand what it’s like to be inspired by others.
The youngest of five children, he had an older brother who by example taught Soto to love reading. His construction-worker father helped him with math, and both parents sacrificed to buy a set of encyclopedias to help him with his studies.
He also had teachers who recognized his potential at an early age, labeled him gifted and talented, and sent him to a magnet elementary school where he could be challenged.
But even though he was a good student, he had no ambition to pursue higher learning when he attended Rio Mesa High School. That is until he found Upward Bound and learned he could accomplish much in life.
“I thought I would be a construction worker until I learned I could be an engineer and build roller coasters,” he said.
According to his students, he is inspiring the same kind of ambition in them.
“It’s easier to learn when class is fun and our teacher is like one of us,” said Oxnard High School senior Lizbeth Ramos, 16.
Added senior Roberto Rodriguez: “Alfredo knows what it means to be Latino and come from a poor neighborhood. He just graduated from Stanford, and if he can do it so can I.”