The Oregonian: Ernesto Aguilar brings North Portland middle school students to Portland State University
Author: Casey Parks, The Oregonian
Posted: May 24, 2013

Read the original story here in The Oregonian. 

A friend told the 10-year-old boy he couldn't go to college because he was poor. His mother had left school in sixth grade to become a maid, and his father hadn't attended high school.

So the family called the only Latino they know who finished college -- Ernesto Aguilar.

"Can you talk to our son," they asked Aguilar. "Can you show him he can go to college?"

For many of the kids in Aguilar's Portsmouth neighborhood, he is the only person they know besides teachers who has graduated from college. But why talk to only one kid, he thought. Better to talk to them all.

So Friday, Aguilar brought 120 North Portland middle schoolers to Portland State University for an all-day conference funded by grants from the Viking Vets, the applied linguistics department and the federal Gear-Up program. Kids toured the campus, played in its game room, and met Aguilar and a dozen other first-generation college graduates from various ethnic backgrounds.

"You belong here," he said. "We believe in you."

Both of Aguilar's parents dropped out before high school, the 34-year-old told the kids. His father, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, worked in a hatchery near Woodburn, cleaning egg stalls. When the couple broke up, Aguilar's mother left school at 16 to raise their son alone.

Aguilar wasn't sure he'd attend post-secondary school either, until the Air Force came calling. The military paid for him to earn a chemical engineering degree at Colorado School of Mines.

After school, he spent four years active duty then another half-decade traveling the world. He biked the perimeter of Australia, kayaked down 20-foot waterfalls and ran with the bulls in Spain. He's earning a master's degree now from PSU's applied linguistics department. He wants to become an English as Second Language teacher.

The other conference panelists shared similar stories. Their families were from Tonga or the Philippines or Germany or Barbados, but each shared the experience of looking for a path to school in a family that had not traversed it.

"My parents supported my education, but they couldn't help me fill out the applications," said Anthony Albright, a Jefferson High School graduate who is studying social work at PSU.

Albright wasn't a standout student. By seventh grade, he still couldn't read more than a few words, and even now, "school is a really hard thing for me," he said.

But he found success by starting at community college. He volunteers now at George Middle and César Chávez schools, and when he graduates from PSU's sociology program, he wants to become a high school teacher.

Deborah Peterson, the former Roosevelt High School principal, said guidance counselors told her she'd never succeed in college and urged her not to waste time applying. After high school, she floundered until her mother -- a high school graduate -- applied for her.

"Your job is to find one adult who believes in you," Peterson said.

Near the end of the panel, Aguilar introduced a special guest -- his father. As his son worked his way through school, so did Carlos Aguilar. After Woodburn, he moved to Eugene and enrolled in a high school equivalency program. That diploma gave him still limited opportunities in a town that was churning out doctorate students, so he went to Texas to find work.

"I felt like a rat, living in the shadows, always looking for a hole," he said.

Outside of the El Paso food stamp office, dejected after being denied benefits, Carlos Aguilar heard a woman say Saudi Arabia was a good place to make money. He moved there and earned a bachelor's and master's degree. He earned a second master's from the University of Texas.

He now teaches Instructional Design at Lone Star College in Tomball, Texas. Three years ago, he became a citizen.

He followed his son around after the panel, beaming and snapping pictures. His boy was an inspiration, he said. But inspiration is just a spark, he warned. The hard work comes next.

"If you are inspired today," Carlos Aguilar said, "that inspiration will die today unless there is a plan." 

-- Casey Parks