On the road to learning

South Los Angeles might seem like an odd place for a new Rhode Island-based college program to begin its orientation. But that is exactly where College Unbound went Sunday when it began a three-week session for eight of its students.

The orientation includes a bus trip to each students' hometown across the U.S., starting in Los Angeles.

Dubbed "Roots and Routes," the orientation tour requires each student to plan a day of educational activities in his or her hometown.

College Unbound is a program of Big Picture Learning, a high school reform effort to help inner-city youths who are the first in their families to attend college. The first college to affiliate with the program is Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

"College Unbound's trip across America allows our students to introduce themselves to their classmates by teaching each other about their lives, the neighborhoods, their successes, their obstacles and their passion," said Adam Bush, College Unbound's director of curriculum.

Program leaders believe the approach will help students feel more at home in their new environment and help them succeed in college.

Leading the group's first tour Sunday was Ana Villegas, a 19-year-old graduate of Frida Kahlo High School, a continuation school on the campus of Santee Learning Complex in the area known as Historic South-Central.

Villegas' theme revolved around community gardens, organic produce and self-sustainability, an interest she said developed when learning about pesticides.

"As a kid I wouldn't watch cartoons, instead I'd watch the Discovery Channel," Villegas said. "My mom was very supportive of this. She would often take me hiking in Griffith Park."

She led her fellow students on an early-morning hike at the park, showing off the view of the city.

Following the hike, the group stopped at the Studio for Southern California History in Chinatown for a research and interviewing workshop. Each student will be required to make a short documentary film about each stop, Bush said.

About noon, the small white bus pulled up at the intersection of 41st and Alameda streets, and students met with a community activist who spoke about the South-Central community farmers who tried to work a 14-acre plot before being evicted by the landowner.

The 2006 fight over the land was covered by reporters and filmed as a documentary by filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy, which the students viewed before the tour.

At the site, students gazed at the land now reduced to dry dirt and weeds.

"It was pretty upsetting to see," said Alex Villagomez, a 19-year-old from Sacramento who will be the next tour host.

To emphasize his theme of historic preservation, Villagomez plans to take the students through Old Sacramento and Sutter's Fort State Historic Park.

Sunday's tour ended outside of the Los Angeles Public Library on 5th Street, where Villegas goes daily to read.

"It's a tour about Ana," Bush said of the first stop. "And it's a tour of the places, people and things that have affected her."



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