Latinas becoming a force for change in Sonoma County
A growing number of Latinas in Sonoma County are graduating from college, starting businesses and stepping forward in leadership roles to inspire the next generation. Meet some of the people who are making it happen.
Guiding students toward success
Magali Telles is the kind of person any parent of teenagers would count their blessings to know.
As the college readiness programs coordinator at Sonoma State University, she visits high school campuses and works with students to ensure they have met their eligibility requirements, and that they understand the tangled college admissions and financial aid application process. At her fingertips are all the rules, requirements and forms. She's guided hundreds through it; she knows the drill.
But most of all, she knows the barriers that sometimes arise, from family expectations to the challenges of being the first in a family to go to college. In response, Telles puts on the Latino Family Summit, which provides parents with Spanish-language workshops that teach them about the admissions process, financial aid and college life.
Telles' interest is more than professional. It's also personal.
When she was young, Telles' parents had encouraged her to pursue college, something they didn't have the opportunity to do in their native Mexico. But there was a catch: they wanted their only daughter to live at home, and expected her to go to nearby Fresno State.
Telles couldn't wait to get out of the San Joaquin Valley, so she discreetly applied to Sonoma State University, 200 miles away in Rohnert Park.
“I was worried that my dad would freak out. I knew my mom was going to,” Telles said, recalling how she felt when she received the college's acceptance letter in the springtime 16 years ago.
As the oldest, Telles says she had to drive her mother to appointments and serve as her translator. When she left for college, her mother struggled with day-to-day tasks, like paying bills. She wanted her daughter to return home.
“I could have easily broke and gone back,” recalled Telles, now 34.
She's glad she stayed at SSU, which she says provided her with personal attention that she wouldn't have received at a larger campus like Fresno State. She also found support in the Latina sorority, Lambda Theta Nu, a chapter she started on campus with seven other Latinas in 2003.
Telles ultimately graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 2005 and later returned for a master's in education. In her job, she frequently gets to work with young Latinas, who are wrestling with challenges similar to the ones she faced, including the guilt of leaving home.
“I hear a lot from Latina students, ‘my parents need me,'” she said.
Her parents now understand she made the best decision by going to SSU, said Telles, a Windsor resident who also works with the parents of Latino students, helping to ease their concerns.
Parents don't always understand college life and the all-consuming pressures that come with it. It is one reason Telles organized the all-day Latino Family Summit, which drew 300 students and their parents this spring. They received information on the college admissions process, financial aid, the California Dream Act and support services available on campus to students.
For Telles, the job is much more than just providing information about college and giving families a roadmap to reach it.
“It's about being an example in the community,” she said.
Introducing families to college life
Mariana Martinez likes taking things up to the highest level in her own life, and she encourages her students to do the same.
A Chicano studies professor at SSU, Martinez was elected last year to the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, where she became the first Latina to serve on that board. She also works with the McNair Scholars Program on campus to help low-income and minority students prepare for the big step: pursuing master's degrees. This year, she reports, about half of the 23 students in the program are women, and many come from Sonoma County.
While these numbers are encouraging, getting students to go on to earn graduate degrees can sometimes require a bit of rousing.
The women in the program can be found on campus doing research into the wee hours of the night, sometimes angering their parents who don't want them coming home late, Martinez said. She also likes to take the women to education conferences outside the state and encourage them to apply to top universities, even those on the other side of the country.
“I don't get invited to the holiday parties,” Martinez said with a smile.
Martinez doesn't really mind. When she was admitted to college, she was living at home with two young siblings. Thanks to an adviser who knew she needed a quiet place to study and focus on school, Martinez moved onto the SSU campus as an undergraduate. To get her parents' approval, they misled her parents into thinking the college required her to live on campus.