SOY tours inspire next generation

On a Monday in mid-April, a handful of students piled into a couple of cars in Costa Mesa and headed north.

For some of the high schoolers it was their first time outside Orange County.

They were on a trip with Save Our Youth, or SOY, the nonprofit that boosts education and combats violence for minority students on the Westside of Costa Mesa.

After a three-hour drive, they arrived at UC Santa Barbara where a student took them on a personal tour.

"He didn't just show us around, he explained some signification places of the school and what they had to offer," said Ricky Herrera, a junior from Estancia High School.

On the five-day college tour that stretched as far north as San Francisco State University, Ricky and the others got tours at six universities, each from an Orange County transplant.

"Every college has a SOY alumni," said Silvia Rosales, the nonprofit's operations manager. "So they get the personal connection from someone who came from the same background, same environment, same high schools, same county that are now thriving in theses schools."

For seven years, SOY has run the trips up the coast, giving many students their first glimpse of a college campus.

It's become a cornerstone program at the nonprofit that's celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Formed in 1993, SOY started when a group of mothers decided to fight gang violence with education.

The nonprofit's annual fiesta Friday celebrated that milestone and asked donors to support the annual college trips along with a host of services like homework help and after school break dancing classes.

Jennifer Corona, a SOY alumna and recent UC Berkeley graduate, explained to attendees why the nonprofit's two-decade history is important.

"Something I really stressed when talking about SOY was growing up and not having a roll model that looked like you," she said. "Not having someone with brown skin that graduated from college or went to college."

SOY provides a generational memory for Latino students who are sometimes the first in their family to attend college, just like her, Corona said.

It wasn't that her mother and father didn't want her to pursue higher education, she said, "It was just my parents didn't know what to do or how to help me or how to guide me."

Students at SOY repeatedly call the organization's Costa Mesa headquarters a safe place that hosts a secondary family.

"They just provided that second home when we needed it," Corona said.

Before last month's college trip, Ricky was apathetic about college, he said.

"Now afterward, I am dying to go to college already. I just want to get out of here," he said. "Orange County seems so small compared to up there. It's actually made me want to do better in school and be more involved in the community just because I'm tired of doing my own thing."

He's still applying for colleges, but fellow Estancia student Manuel Chavez, a senior, already has a few picked out.

He went on his first college trip with SOY two years ago.

Both boys say the trip changed their aspirations.

"I remember that trip sophomore year was a big reason why I started trying more in school." Manuel said. "For me it opened my eyes to the world and what I could do potentially."

He was accepted into six colleges across California as a political science major and has narrowed it down to two, including UC Irvine.

But if he takes his second choice, he may soon take over for Corona, who was a tour guide for SOY each semester she was at Berkeley.

After graduating in the fall she's been selected to participate in Teach For America, a nonprofit that places educators in low-income areas.

She'll soon head to Houston for training before traveling to a two-year assignment.

"After going away for college, I wanted to give back," Corona said. "And I always think of SOY as a place to give back to because it's given so many of us so much."

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