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Showing way to college
Tucson Citizen
November 19, 2003
Town hall meeting at Sunnyside HIGH
Student getting by barriers tells how he does it

Samuel Olivarria will be the first to tell you he doesn't fit the stereotype of a college-bound student.

His first language isn't English. He couldn't speak a word of it when he moved here from Mexico.

His dad died when he was young.

He doesn't have tons of money in a bank somewhere that he can use for college after graduating from Sunnyside High School.

But Olivarria also will be the first to tell you there's no reason he can't attend college. And he'll also say the same is true for anyone else not in that perfect college-bound category.

He plans to become a pediatrician, first attending Pima Community College and later transferring to the University of Arizona.

Olivarria, 16, a junior, will be a speaker at the third annual education town hall sponsored by the Tucson Citizen and Sunnyside Unified School District.

It will begin tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at the high school, 1725 E. Bilby Road. A community resources fair and free dinner will precede it at 5. The topic is "Why Not College? Planning for Life After High School."

Olivarria was about 5 when his dad died and his mother moved the family from San Luis, Son., to Tucson in 1992. He started school in English as a Second Language classes in kindergarten and stayed there through third grade.

His mother, Adriana Molina, who also didn't know much English when they came to Tucson, took adult education classes at Pima Community College and then transferred to the University of Arizona, where she got her teaching degree. She now is a Spanish teacher at Sunnyside High.

"Learning a language isn't easy for adults, but if you put your will into it, it happens, little by little," Molina said.

She thinks about 75 percent of Sunnyside students are without role models to show them how to go to college. "But if you want to do it, you can do it," she said. "There are plenty of ways. You just need to get informed. To ask."

She said it wasn't easy when her family arrived here.

"I just kept knocking on doors until I found the right one" to get into ESL classes at Pima, she said. At the time, she also was working at a swap meet and had young children at home.

"I needed to continue my education to provide what my children needed," Molina said.

She managed, she said, adding there especially are opportunities for Hispanics, for women, for low-income students. Some of her help came through student loans, which she said she still is paying. "But that cost is nothing compared to what I will be making" with a degree.

The irony of coming to a country where she didn't know the language is that she had more opportunities to continue her education. "I always liked succeeding in school, but there was no university in my town, so I couldn't go ... inside of me I always wanted to go to college."

At her house, it's never "IF you want to go to college, it's WHERE you want to go," Molina said. "In order to succeed in life, high school isn't enough." She tells her children, "Sure, you'll have to work hard in college, but you'll feel better about yourself if you're educated."

Olivarria said the most intimidating thing about his dream of going to college isn't the money issue. "I grew up in poverty, and we never needed money to succeed. That's not going to be a barrier. The most intimidating thing would be letting my mom down."

Molina has always put his and his siblings' schoolwork on the refrigerator to show "she was proud of it," he said.

His mom also showed him dedication: "She's always working on something."

Barriers don't seem to affect his family members, and that may be because of their attitudes - something Olivarria thinks others can share.

He relates to students here from other countries and suggests they be as outgoing as possible and get involved in sports and other activities to help them fit in.

He takes his own advice. He plays baseball at Sunnyside and in another league; he used to play basketball, and this year he joined the golf team. He is on the Academic Decathlon team and in advanced communications, a class that produces a show at school three days a week.

His secret to doing well in school is to not waste time. He tries to get as much work done in class as possible. And, unlike most teenagers, he doesn't sleep much. He says he gets about three hours of sleep or fewer a night.

When he gets discouraged, he listens to music or calls his best friend. And that puts things in perspective, he said. He has a goal, and he intends to reach it.


What: Third annual Tucson Citizen-Sunnyside Unified School District town hall

Topic: "Why Not College? Planning for Life After High School"

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. tomorrow. Community resource fair and free dinner from 5 to 6:15

Where: Sunnyside High School's auditorium, 1725 E. Bilby Road

Cost: Free