Willamette Academy guides students to reach college

Republished from an article in the Statesman Journal (March, 2014):

It wasn’t pluck, hard work or intelligence that changed Natividad Zavala’s life.

Those things helped, but what really made the difference was a program that walked Zavala through every step of the way from seventh grade to college. Willamette Academy volunteers helped him with homework, challenged him to do better and held him accountable when he didn’t. His parents dreamed of his success, but they worked so hard to provide for the family that there was little time to do more.

Last year he became the first one in his extended family to graduate from college. While friends from his neighborhood work minimum wage jobs at Walmart, he works for Multnomah County chairwoman Marissa Madrigal and dreams of law school.

“My family and my friends were just as motivated and had just as much potential,” he said. “Just because they didn’t have the same opportunity as I had, my life will be vastly different.”

Willamette Academy started 12 years ago as a program to help local students become the first in their families to graduate from high school and attend college. Volunteers provide weekly tutoring in writing, reading, math, science and technology. They also help navigate scholarship and financial aid applications.

For South Salem High School junior Leo Davila, the volunteers helped him do what others said was impossible. Davila fell behind 14 credits after he spent his sophomore year battling leukemia.

“They developed a plan for me, told me what classes to take in and out of school,” he said. “Now I just need one history class, which is 0.5 credits, and I will be caught up.”

Davila will graduate next year and plans to attend Stanford University, where he wants to study medicine. He hopes to become an oncologist and help cancer patients the way his doctor helped him.

Willamette Academy’s intensive hands-on support yields results not only for Davila but across the board. All of the students who participated in after-school, weekend and summer programs in the past four years graduated high school. More than 200 have gone to college since 2007, said Michele Gray, executive director of Willamette Academy.

They also received more than $10 million in scholarships. Students reached these goals even though about 85 percent of their parents never attended high school.

“Everyone deserves an opportunity to learn, grow and succeed, but many young people don’t have access to the resources they need,” Gray said.

The support goes beyond just helping individuals, she said, because their success inspires their siblings, neighbors and community.

The academy started two new programs to expand that reach. Project Promise is a series of workshops and seminars open to participants’ siblings and other students while PUENTES helps families advocate for their students’ academic needs, support their educational goals and bridge the generational gap.

Despite the opportunities he received, Zavala can’t help but feel for the students who don’t make it into the competitive program. Teachers nominate stand-out students who then complete applications for the program.

“For that one kid who gets in, there are so many more who aren’t getting the same opportunities,” he said.

Zavala wants to study law or public policy in order to pay forward the gift he received at Willamette Academy.

“Whatever I do I want to make the biggest difference and the biggest change I can,” he said.



03-17-2014

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