Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Latina helps at-risk kids into college

Former BYU student changes teens' lives
By Lisa Schencker, The Salt Lake Tribune, 05/03/2010

As a sophomore in high school, Dayan Bernal didn't know how to get into college.

She didn't know the difference between honors and Advanced Placement classes. She didn't know she had to take the ACT. Her English was only basic after moving to the U.S. from Bolivia.

But she navigated her way to college despite all that -- and she took 17 other struggling Latino students along with her.

For years, the best minds in education have pondered how to get more Latino students to attend college. Bernal, now 24, may have found an answer. For her Brigham Young University honors thesis in 2007, Bernal designed and taught a college preparation class for Latino sophomores at Provo High School. Now, three years later, 17 of her 25 Provo High students are in college, and Bernal hopes to start a nonprofit to expand the program.

"I was able to relate to them and tell them it was possible," said Bernal, who recently graduated from BYU. "I shared my personal story and told them I could see so much potential in them."

Bernal said she knew from the beginning she wanted her honors thesis to focus on low college enrollment rates among Latino students because of her own experiences. Only 5.4 percent of Utah public college and university students are Latino, even though they comprise more than 11 percent of Utah's population. Latinos are underrepresented in higher education for a number of reasons, including financial challenges, language barriers and parents who are sometimes unfamiliar with the education system, among other things.

"After I researched that, I said, 'I don't want to write a paper. I want to make a change in my community,'" Bernal said.

For a semester, Bernal worked with the students during and after school. She invited Latino speakers -- professionals and other BYU students -- to show the teens what was possible. She taught students about careers, degrees and financial aid. She invited speakers to talk about college entrance exams, services and programs at Provo High, and she took her students on tours of college campuses.

At the end of the class, she asked them to prepare timelines outlining their junior and senior years.

Mostly, she tried to inspire them.

"Once they realize they can get out of poverty with education, they realize it's possible to change their life and life of their families," Bernal said.

Gary Guanuna, one of Bernal's former students, said he always wanted to go to college but wasn't sure if he could really do it until Bernal's class. By his sophomore year in high school, some of his friends were drop outs, his grades had slipped and he was busy working every day after school to help support his family.

He said Bernal's class opened his eyes.

"Most people that said, 'Go to college,' were teachers or counselors who didn't have to face the stuff we had to face," said Guanuna, who just finished his first year at LDS Business College. "She was a great example to us, especially because she was Latina. It made us feel like if she could do it, we definitely could do it."

Mark Guanuna, another one of Bernal's former students and Gary Guanuna's cousin, said Bernal inspired the students with her personal story and her dedication. After the semester ended, Bernal put together an ACT prep class for students and kept in touch with many of them during the past few years, even while she was on an LDS mission in Chicago.

"She actually cared," said Mark Guanuna, who now attends the University of Utah. "You could tell she wasn't wasting her time. It was something she wanted to do."

Ted Lyon, one of Bernal's thesis advisors, said he believes that was a big part of Bernal's success with the students. Lyon said he was skeptical at first of her idea for her thesis, but he said she was determined and ultimately her project succeeded.

"She did an amazing job of simply showing interest and love and goodwill to students who hadn't often experienced those positive qualities in their educational experiences," Lyon said in an e-mail from Chile, where he now serves as an LDS temple president. Lyon is now retired but was director of Latin American Studies at BYU at the time.

"The fact that they perceived her work as volunteer, her choice, to spend time with them rather than immerse herself in her own studies, or receive pay, was a major factor."

Jose Enriquez, who was Provo High assistant principal at the time and is now assistant principal at Mountain View High, said Bernal has "a lot of talent" when it comes to reaching youth.

Former student Taby Davila, who is now a Utah Valley University student, said Bernal's dedication inspired her to go into education, too.

"She just wanted to help everyone, and she cared for every single one of us," Davila said. "If it wouldn't have been for Dayan, I think a lot of us wouldn't have thought about college or even graduated from high school."

Davila said she hopes to change someone's life the way Bernal changed hers.

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