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Growth and strong results in COCC's Latinx programs give lift and direction to Central Oregon's college-bound community

As a sophomore at Central Oregon Community College (COCC), student Eric Cardona took a leap and joined the Latinx Club. Despite feeling shy and not knowing anyone, Cardona quickly felt a sense of connection among his fellow members. PHOTO SUBMITTED BY MARK RUSSELL JOHNSON - The Latinx Club is COCC's cultural student group with the highest number of participants. It brings people like Eric Cardona together for connection, conversation, and resource-sharing.The Latinx Club is COCC's cultural student group with the highest number of participants. Open to all students, it brings people like Cardona together for connection, conversation and resource-sharing. Soon, he began speaking up at meetings and later volunteering for events and activities.

"I've loved getting involved with the projects and events for the community," Cardona says. "I've met and made friends with people I never thought I would have made. And I've learned a lot from members and the coordinator of the club, which has helped my confidence for sure."

For more than 10 years, COCC has been nurturing an intentional course of action designed not just to support current COCC Latinx students but also to reach local high school populations — eliminating cultural and systemic roadblocks while building awareness and access around higher education for Central Oregon's Latinx youth and their families. Regional demographics indicate the need for these efforts: According to the 2020 U.S. Census data, 20.4% of Jefferson County, 8.4% of Deschutes County and 8% of Crook County identified as Hispanic or Latino.

In response, COCC's work continuously evolves to serve this community, according to Jacqueline Ruggieri, COCC's Latinx Student Program Coordinator and Latinx Club Advisor. Specifically, the college's Latinx Student Program "strives to assist in the recruitment, retention and academic success of the Latinx/a/o/e students," she says. "Mentorship and educational support are a major piece to the puzzle of assisting students and minimizing barriers to education."

As funds allow, the Latinx Student Program offers scholarships throughout the school year. This can help alleviate financial burdens, as many other scholarships only open once a year. Together with COCC's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Latinx Program and Club also plan cultural activities and celebrations, including COCC's Latinx Heritage Month Events, held in October every year.

As a result of these programs and their resources, Latinx students like Eric Cardona and fellow club member, Michelle Rivas, have experienced real camaraderie among the COCC community, developing strategies to reinforce their educational goals and tapping their inner strength to pursue those dreams.

"It might seem like there are not a lot of differences between Latinos/Hispanics and the U.S. culture, but there are some," Rivas says. "The fact that there's a club like this at COCC makes it easier for someone who is a first generation college student. You just feel at home."

Israel Tico heard about COCC's Latinx offerings through Avanza, a COCC-sponsored college preparation program for Latinx high school students and allies. Of the students participating in Avanza, 100% plan to go to college. To date, the program has tracked an impressive 98% high school graduation rate for its participants. With all of this program success and the resulting increase in demand, Avanza has expanded from serving an initial three high schools to now programming in eight high schools throughout Central Oregon. Avanza includes a dedicated Latinx College Preparation Coordinator who closely supports students in their participation and with any wraparound needs.

When school is out, Central Oregon Latinx high schoolers also have a unique opportunity to participate in yet another COCC program: Ganas. This four-day, three-night summer symposium gives students the chance to stay on campus in Wickiup Residence Hall, experience a taste of college life with classes, activities and faculty, receive college credit and even earn a scholarship.

Looking back, Tico recalls the impact these offerings, as well as his current experiences as a Latinx student at COCC, have had. Tico's parents live in Mexico, but five years ago, he moved to Bend to live with other family members. Here, in Central Oregon, Tico has hoped for greater educational opportunities and a better life. Fortunately, through Avanza, Ganas and now the COCC Latinx Student Program and Latinx Club, Tico has found all that and more. Each of COCC's available educational experiences has reinforced hope for his family and its younger generations as well as instilled him with gratitude and drive.

"I once had many doubts about my future in education and whether I had any chance to continue or get ahead," Tico says. "But I have been very glad to be in these COCC programs because I could connect with more Latinx students who share the same culture and want to continue their education, just like me. In the end, I was glad to know I was not alone."

Of note, while COCC's cultural programs and clubs focus on each offering's respective cultural connections, these programs and clubs are open to all students. As part of its mission to ensure access to education for all, COCC provides learning and growth opportunities for any student interested in joining and participating.

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