PICO RIVERA — An El Rancho High School senior visited the White House in the final days of the Obama administration.
Bethania Perez visited the nation’s capital as one of 17 members of the student advisory board of Better Make Room, Michelle Obama’s initiative to increase college attendance.
As part of her new position, she will plan two events this semester. One of them, College Signing Day, will celebrate students’ college acceptances in the spring. The other she will design herself.
As part of the Better Make Room board, she had the opportunity to hear Michelle Obama’s last speech as first lady.
She described the experience as “a dream,” and said there “was not a dry eye in the house.”
Afterwards, Perez was afforded the opportunity to meet the first lady, who congratulated the new advisory board members.
“Mrs. Obama is such an inspiration and she made me feel much more confidant that I can make a difference with my voice,” Perez said.
“My parents didn’t continue on to college, so I’ve always felt motivated to be the change in my family and reach higher,” Perez said. “I want to make sure students know the importance of a college education, especially in my community where college attendance is low.”
Perez’ leadership background includes serving as a peer advisor at El Rancho. She is also the president of her school’s California Scholarship Federation organization, which raises funds for scholarships and field trips.
Perez said she aspires to a career as a biomedical engineer and would like to attend Columbia University in New York City, Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University, or the University of Southern California.
Perez is involved in a college preparation program through Generation First Degree, a local nonprofit that seeks to “get a college degree in every Pico Rivera home,” said founder Jacki Cisneros.
Cisneros and her husband started the organization four years ago to address the university attendance gap in Pico Rivera, where only eight percent of residents over 25 years old have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27.5 percent nationwide. A similar trend is reflected among Latinos nationally, which comprise a large population of Pico Rivera.
“Latinos are the largest growing demographic, but they’re not graduating from college,” Cisneros said. “And these are citizens, not immigrants. My husband and I live these statistics. He’s 46 years old, and for 30 years he was the only one in his family with a college degree.”
Indeed, 2014 Pew Research statistics show that 15 percent of Latinos ages 25-29 have earned a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 22 percent of African-Americans, 41 percent of whites and 63 percent of Asians.
Although Cisneros said it is too early to determine her program’s success in numbers, since students in the pilot programs are still completing their college education, she said she has noticed a shift in attitudes when interacting with younger students.
“We have some elementary school students in our district who are already saying that they’d like to go to college. Their ambitions have also gotten bigger,” she said. “I used to hear that many of them wanted to become teachers. Now they are saying they want to be astronauts.”
In addition to their college preparedness programs, Generation First Degree also offers, “Reading Roots,” for which every kindergarten student in the city receives a backpack filled with 10 books. That aims to promote literacy and begin college-awareness at a young age.