It’s not every day you see a group of high school students voraciously discussing a philosophical allegory from medieval Spain. But that’s a normal day in the new Liberation Scholars program based at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. The new program is giving Latino students at Woodburn High School the opportunity to start preparing for college, by providing examples of classes and the experience of life on campus.
In recent years, Woodburn High has regularly had higher graduation rates than the state average. But, students in Woodburn, roughly 83% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, still face challenges getting to college.
Mario Garza, a college and career counselor at Woodburn, said there are “variables” for students at Woodburn. Many will be “first-generation college students; many of these students are immigrants or the children of immigrants,” Garza said.
Emir González, 17, is one of the students in the program.
“I’m pretty scared to come to college,” González said. “I think just being scared that it will be too much for me, and I won’t be able to handle the pressure.”
González said his older brother started college, but he didn’t finish.
According to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, about 55% of Hispanic or Latino high schoolers who graduated in 2018 enrolled in college within 16 months. That compares to nearly 80% of Asian American students and about 63% of white students.
“I think what we try to do, and I think what George Fox is doing with us through their Liberation Scholars program, is really trying to build up the toolbox for all of these kids,” Garza said, “having them make sure they have an understanding of how to get where they’re trying to get to, and what that actually means once they get there.”
The program is guiding a group of 14 incoming high school seniors through works of philosophy, history and literature this summer, as well as offering mentorship on the college application process in the following school year.
“We’re interested in the students having a sense of themselves as belonging in college, of having them see themselves as future college students,” said Heather Ohaneson, an associate professor at George Fox who is leading the program.
The program includes a two-week summer seminar for the students, now underway, after which they will earn college credits to take to any school.
“They stay here overnight and get an immersive college experience where we focus on the humanities, particularly the joy of the humanities — studying philosophy, English literature, history [and] scripture in Socratic seminars,” Ohaneson said.
George Fox is a private Christian university of about 4,000 students that was founded as a college for Quakers in 1891.
In addition to those daily seminars, the students visit a different building or office on campus every day to see what types of resources are typically available at universities, Ohaneson said. They also get a chance to take field trips to the state Capitol and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.
During the upcoming school year, the Woodburn seniors will meet with George Fox faculty and staff, as well as current students known as “Liberation Mentors,” who are Latino and bilingual. Ohaneson said those meetings will happen twice a month, once at Woodburn and once at George Fox, and will open up opportunities to discuss college — including the college application process, financial aid and scholarships.
The program was created out of a $300,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation — funding it through 2023. Ohaneson said she hopes the program will be able to continue past then, as a way to expose people to the humanities, especially people who may not feel welcomed to learn about them.
“I find that a lot of the students of color here at George Fox University feel compelled to study nursing or engineering because they think that that’s the best way to get a high-paying job,” she said. “I want all of these students to know that subjects like philosophy, English and history belong to them as much as anybody else; while they don’t have to study them, they can — their access to such academic spaces is a matter of justice.”
Some students in the program are nervous about college, but they say the program is helping that.
Program participant González, who acknowledged feeling anxious about going to college, said the Liberation Scholars program is giving him more confidence. He said he might even major in philosophy when he gets to college.
“I think here it’s proven that I do have some worth,” González said. “There is hope for me to graduate and hopefully become the first member of my family to graduate college.”
Brenda Meza Rodriguez, another student in the program, said there’s a special pressure in potentially being the first person in your family to go to college.
“I’ve always wanted to go to college, but the more I grew up, the more I doubted that,” Meza Rodriguez said. “Experiencing this made me realize that I do want to go to college. I just don’t know what type yet, but like, I want to get a higher education.”
For both students, as well as another classmate, Maria Garcia, the program is helping them to realistically see themselves in a college environment.
“I feel like it’s really helped me to kind of realize that I do have the potential to be here and become someone and make my family proud,” Garcia said.
Ohaneson said the program’s curriculum also reflects the backgrounds of the students in attendance. While not all of the Woodburn students are fully bilingual, the program made it a priority to provide all seminar readings in both English and Spanish, and some of the texts come from Latin American authors.
“We’re really proud of building a ‘thick’ culture of inclusion and want that to remain a trademark of our program going forward,” Ohaneson said.