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Helping elementary students discover college life

Helping elementary students discover college life

Eddie Arellano, coordinator of the Discover College Life Project, stands with a group of his elementary students during their annual visit to UNT. Courtesy Eddie Arellano

Helping elementary students discover college life
April 12
12:06 2017

Eddie Arellano snapped photos every few seconds, smiling proudly in between each click of the camera. In front of him, two dozen elementary kids were bubbling with admiration as they bombarded college students with questions.

They were all participating in the Discover College Life Project, a program led by Arellano, that encourages elementary-age kids to see university in their future. Students from Dolores Huerta Elementary in Fort Worth, along with their parents, toured the campus on Friday, April 7, as part of the program’s annual visit. They also met their pen pals, students from UNT and Texas Woman’s University, who talked about the many aspects of being in college.

“The program is more important now than ever,” Arellano said. “We need to inspire the next generation of American dreamers.”

The program began in 1991 when Cesar Chavez visited UNT to boost a movement led by his farmer worker’s union. At the time, Arellano was a new teacher at Washington Heights Elementary when his fourth graders’ skit about the Mexican activist won district and regional history fairs. Their college pen pals in Hispanic Students for Higher Education invited the class to perform for and meet Chavez.

After seeing the effect the experience had on his students, Arellano decided to bring his students back to college the next year. This visit marked the program’s 25th anniversary.

“The purpose of the Discover College Life Project is to encourage everyone to find what they’re interested in,” Arellano said to his students on Friday. “When you finish school and you start working, you want to do something you enjoy.”

Students from Dolores Huerta Elementary in Fort Worth asked questions about college to their pen pals from UNT and TWU. Courtesy | Eddie Arellano

Linda Espino and her 7-year-old son Christian are participating for the first time in the program, unlike other students who have been involved for several years. However, Espino’s younger sister was in the program and is graduating from high school with a full scholarship to Texas State University in San Marcos.

This involvement in the program from a young age helped foster an academic motivation that Espino wanted to instill in her son, especially since she herself was unable to pursue the teaching career she had hoped for.

“I have other kids at home, so my mom had to take the day off so I could be here with Christian,” Espino said. “But she came with my sister and she loved it, so she told me I needed to bring him.”

The Discover College Life Project is an afterschool program open to all students at Dolores Huerta Elementary with parental and teacher consent. College students have to apply to participate, and those that are not assigned a pen pal are still able to participate in or volunteer with the program.

Both students and parents are encouraged to have a pen pal, most of whom are students in organizations with Hispanic roots. The elementary students are all bilingual and many of their parents only speak Spanish, so Arellano wants to ensure that his kids have positive role models from similar backgrounds.

“For many of the students move on past elementary school, what they always remember is coming to the university campus,” Arellano said. “Even if they decide that they’re not coming here to UNT, the goal is to get them to move on past high school.”

Another student in the Discover College Life Project for the first time is Esmerelda Salas, 7. Her parents were unable to accompany her on the college visit, so her brother Francisco Salas, 19, came with her. He is a student at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth but wants to transfer to a four year university.

The trip was an opportunity for both of them to learn about higher education.

“I think she’s excited about college and will have these memories for a long time,” Salas said of his younger sister.

The chance for both of them to be immersed in the university experience for a day was something they were both eager to experience. Salas hopes that by pursuing his own education alongside Esmerelda, he will motivate her to do the same.

“College is fun and I want her to have fun,” Salas said. “And even though it’s hard, it will be rewarding in the end.”

In order to keep his students excited about college even when they’re not visiting campus, Arellano keeps them active in the program year-round. The kids research subjects they are interested in and keep a portfolio with their activity for the year they participated in. They also had their first fundraiser in Denton on Wednesday to raise money for future activities.

Arellano said keeping the program alive is difficult but what keeps him motivated is when he gets calls from students and parents every summer asking if it will be available the next year. He’s seen how it has helped the kids grow and push themselves to succeed in school, but he wants Discover College life to become bigger.

“I challenge other elementary schools here to create a project like this one,” Arellano said. “We need other teachers and schools to start doing pen pals with college organizations.”

Arellano was the first in his family to attend college, and after spending five years at UNT, he wanted to help more students like him do what they once thought was impossible.

“You want the best thing for your children, and the best thing you can give them is education,” Arellano told the program’s parents. “If you have education, you have power.”

Featured Image: Eddie Arellano, coordinator of the Discover College Life Project, stands with a group of his elementary students during their annual visit to UNT. Courtesy | Eddie Arellano

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Bianca Mujica

Bianca Mujica

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