As the end of the school year and summer vacation approaches, some high school students are starting to plan what to do during their free time.
In East Los Angeles, members of United Students, a program of the education-based nonprofit InnerCity Struggle, are preparing to attend the Media Justice Academy in July.
United Students, is a student-organized program that provides information and resources to low-income youth from Theodore Roosevelt, James A. Garfield, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Esteban E. Torres and Mendez High Schools in East L.A.
According to their website, the goal is to “organize high school students build student power and develop young leaders with the aim of transforming the quality of public education in the Eastside.”
Adriana Meza, 16, is in the 10th grade at Lincoln and Stephanie Orea, 18, is a senior at Torres High School, and both of the students told EGP they feel more motivated to go to college after attending a two-day field trip in late April to the Bay Area in Northern California as part of a United Students program that took 36 students from the East L.A. area, including Meza and Orea to visit the University of California at Berkeley, Cal State University East Bay and St Mary’s College.
Both students said they were very exited to go because they never thought they would have the opportunity to visit colleges far from home.
“[At the universities] they motivated us to go directly to a four-year university,” Meza told EGP.
“The best thing was talking to other students who gave us good advice,” added Orea.
Jasmin Pivaral, academic services coordinator at InnerCity Struggle, was one of the coordinators accompanying the students, along with 6 staff organizers.
Historically, Pivaral told EGP, colleges and universities were not equipped to accommodate the needs of low-income students, “and to this day they’re still not accessible.”
That’s why, she said, it is important to have more representation of low-income and first generation students in colleges throughout California.
During the visits to the colleges, “we try to get hosts that come from similar backgrounds as our students,” Pivaral told EGP via email. “We want students not only to be inspired by being on campus, but also to visualize themselves [at the school] through our hosts who are also low-income and first generation college students.”
During their visit, the students were able to meet two United Students alumni; one who is now attending UC Berkeley and another at CSU East Bay.
Meza said she felt comfortable talking to the college students: “They educated us to which school we should attend” depending on our goals, she said, adding that she is now more motivated to go straight to a four-year university rather than a community college.
“They even gave us financial information” about what it costs to attend, Meza added.
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Pivaral said many students, for one reason or another, get discouraged while in high school. “It is our responsibility to help make sure that students still work toward [their] goal despite their obstacles,” she said. Most of the time the reason they get discouraged about their college prospects is due to a lack of information and fear of the cost, she added.
According to the Campaign for College Opportunity’s 2013 study, The State of Higher Education in California, the state is “home to more than 14.5 million Latinos,” or the 38% of California’s population and 68% of Latinos are under the age of 25. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 only 11% of Latinos had a Bachelor’s Degree compared to 39% of whites.
“We understand that most schools do not have the needed resources to provide trips like these to eastside students” or summer programs such as the Academy and that’s why United Students began to organize the student leaders to serve as mentors and to provide the resources, said Pivaral.
Meza said she is proud to be the first one in her family to graduate from high school. She feels a responsibility to give back to her parents who work in low-paying jobs; her mother in a chain fast food restaurant and her father who works part-time in the restaurant and part-time in a warehouse loading and unloading merchandise with a forklift.
“[My parents] work hard for me and I want to be able to help,” she said, adding she wants to become a lawyer or a psychologist. “They approve of [what I am doing] as long as I’m doing good things,” she explains.
Orea, who will be attending East Los Angeles College starting in the fall, said as a first generation student going to college will prove to her family that education is the best option. “I don’t want to struggle like my siblings who have kids already,” dropped out of school and have a hard time making ends meet, said Orea one of four children.
“I want to move forward because I see my parents struggling and I want to help them,” added Orea who is planning to study Business.
During United Students’ Media Justice Academy this summer, students will continue developing their leadership skills and will focus on how media can have a positive or negative influence in communities, said Pivaral.
Student participants will learn how “the media is used to perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions about eastside youth,” and how to overcome them, she explained.
In the meantime, Orea said she is exited to have taken one more step forward in reaching her educational goals. “I want to know what it is like to go to a different place,” she said as she begins to consider the possibility of going to a four-year university far from home.
Meza told EGP that since joining the group her parents have been more open to hearing about her options; “They want me to go to college and have the chance to get a better job,” she said.
This year about 45 students in the United Students program will be graduating from high school, and the colleges they will attend include UCLA, UC San Diego, Yale University, Brown University, Mount St. Mary’s, UC Merced, CSU LA and CSUN.
Although the summer Academy is only open to students who are already United Students members, the group encourages students at their focus high schools to attend their general membership meetings, which usually occur during lunch-time or after school, depending on the campus.
Twitter @jackieguzman 
Editor’s Note: Headline updated to correct editing error.