New horizons: College prep program helps LatinX students excel

As North Lake Tahoe’s demographics break down amid COVID-19’s Zoom Boom, one high school teacher continues the work of lifting an underrepresented, yet pre-existing community.

Craig Rowe, an English teacher, began a small college prep admissions program for Truckee High School students three years ago called La Fuerza Latina.

“At its core, LFL is a college access program,” Rowe said. He compared the program to a private college consultant in the Bay Area with a $400 hourly rate. “I’ve had a lot of success — a lot of full rides to Berkeley, the Claremonts, Stanford, Tufts.”

Mitzi Ayala, center, at a Yale Young Global Summer Scholar event. Ayala now attends UC Berkeley.
Submitted to the Sun

Rowe realized many of his English classes’ most talented pupils could benefit from additional guidance in the college application process when he first started student teaching at Tahoe Truckee High School six years ago.

“I was student teaching with a Ph.D., and I was looking through all my students’ transcripts and I noticed these two Latino students — one had a 4.0 and the other a 4.2,” Rowe said.

When Rowe approached the two students after class to inquire about their academic plans beyond secondary education, he was met with blank stares.

“It occurred to me that these two students were going to get into college, but I questioned, ‘Which one?’ and ‘What will they pay for it?'” Rowe said.

Brizeth Castellanos poses outside of Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Because of the support of LFL and the greater Truckee community, Castellanos was able to avoid taking out loans until earlier this year, when COVID-19 put her parents out of work.
Submitted to the Sun

Rowe said he encourages students to optimize their college experience by applying to small, private universities with robust scholarship programs.

“I think you can get a great education from a non-selective place,” Rowe said. “We target the elite schools because they have the money, the financial aide and the endowments.”

Creating opportunities

Truckee High senior Estefania Morales made it into Tufts University on a full ride.

Morales’ mother is a housekeeper and her father is a construction worker. Morales’ older sister and two older brothers immigrated to the United States with her parents from Jalisco, Mexico.

Morales said her recently realized college aspirations were inspired in large part by her sister, who moved here in eighth grade not knowing any English.

“My family was very happy when my older sister graduated from Santa Clara University,” Morales said. “That was the whole purpose for my parents to come over here — to give their children a better life.”

LFL members Jacqui Campos, left, and Estefania Morales, right, helped Nevada County librarian Bobbi Luster, center, with the Truckee Library Family Drive-In Movie Night in October. Morales, a junior at Tufts University, is attending classes online amid the pandemic.
Submitted to the Sun

Morales said Santa Clara was her top choice of school before she met Craig Rowe, because she did not know what else was available.

“Throughout elementary school and middle school, I really didn’t have that much support in terms of my teachers,” Morales said. “Most of Truckee is majority white, they aren’t fully aware of how to support the LatinX community.”

Morales said she found it hard to relate to white peers in the community, many of whom have easy access to tutoring, private lessons and travel destinations.

Morales said she had two supportive teachers in middle school, but the rest were discouraging and made comments like “maybe English isn’t for you.”

Morales said she became more aware of the discrepancies in her academic treatment and available resources in high school.

“Freshman year, my teachers didn’t say that they didn’t think I was smart, but they said it with that energy,” Morales said.

Morales said Rowe took an interest in her education and kept her accountable.

“Mr. Rowe made me feel worthy,” Morales said. “He always acknowledged my successes and he was honest, too, so if I was bad at something he would help me.”

Morales said his investment in her future paid off, literally.

“That’s how I passed my AP Lang test — I had sessions with him and I really improved as a writer,” Morales explained.

One mentor’s rocky journey

Rowe’s own academic path was not as linear as some of those he mentors. The child of a single, immigrant mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, Rowe self identifies as a “scholarship kid” and said he nearly flunked out of high school and was kicked out of community college.

After cooking in restaurants for nearly 12 years, Rowe returned to community college in Seattle and eventually transferred to the University of Washington. After acquiring his bachelor’s degree, Rowe went on to UC Santa Barbara for his masters and UC Berkeley for his doctorate.

Rowe said some LSL students are missing out on extracurricular activities, and missing a critical piece of the college application puzzle.

“A lot of that was that they were getting good grades, but that’s all that they were doing,” Rowe said.

According to current student Estefania Morales, Rowe encouraged robust discussion in the classroom that helped her establish different voices.

“He helped me come out of my comfort zone and speak up because back then I was really shy,” Morales said. “He helped me find that inner voice.”

Rowe also galvanized Morales to apply to summer programs and network.

After Morales attended IU Bloomington’s summer biology program for a week before her senior year, she continued her speaker series.

“I would research and email people of color who are leaders to meet with LFL,” Morales said. “It was pretty influential because we saw Nina Shaw, a famous Hollywood attorney, and the famous poet David Martinez.”

LFL hosted a Zoom Speaker Series during COVID that featured Chicano poet & Columbia professor David Tomas Martinez.
Submitted to the Sun

Morales said she did not participate much in sports in high school, in part, because all of her peers were already proficient athletes from their experience in club sports.

“I noticed the economic barrier,” Morales said. “You have to be playing since you were 3 through a private club. Since it’s a small town, they have to make money so it’s expensive.”

Further, Morales said most of her LatinX friends sled occasionally, as opposed to their Caucasian peers, who ride regularly on local ski teams.

“We don’t even have the money for the passes or the equipment,” Morales said.

Morales said Rowe encouraged her to load up on AP classes and helped her improve her writing greatly so she would score better on the SAT.

Morales said she thinks LFL changed the trajectory of her academic career through the support offered by her peers, her mentor and local, collaborative institutions.

She’s currently studying political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts on a full ride.


Learning the language was also a process that required effort and support for Brizeth Castellanos, now a junior at Berkeley.

Castellanos, 21, moved to Truckee six years ago from the city of Veracruz, Mexico.

Castellanos said her father works as a painter for John’s Construction and her mother cleans houses.

“They work extremely hard to help my brother and I,” Castellanos said, adding that her brother, just a junior at Truckee High, has also been working to support her through her college dream.

Castellanos said transitioning to English was hard when she first got to the states, but felt fortunate for the friendly and supportive nature of North Lake Tahoe.

“When I started adapting myself to the culture, I felt more welcome. However, I still felt like I needed to work way harder than everyone else to shine, to have access to opportunities,” Castellanos said. “That’s where LFL comes in.”

Castellanos said she did not have to adopt a new culture or different values in the student group, which was empowering.

“I felt like I was at home because I found my people,” Castellanos said. “Before I met them I didn’t know I wanted to go to go college, I didn’t know how all of the members are such an inspiration to change the community, the world.”

Leslie Caratachea poses in a New York City sky scraper while participating in LAWbound, a program launched by LatinoJustice, formerly known as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Caratachea now attends Wesleyan University, based in Connecticut.
Submitted to the Sun

Castellanos said LFL helped her cover the costs of her college applications.

Castellanos said although public universities are more limited in their financial aid, she has only needed to take out one loan since she began school at Berkeley.

“I took one loan out for school, a year ago,” Castellanos said. “My family and I went through a hard time because my parents didn’t work because of COVID.”

That financial hardship is one part of the reason why Castellanos is thinking of returning to Truckee, to save money and live with her parents.

The other reason Castellanos might stay in the Sierra is to pursue an education-oriented career similar to Rowe, and offer students like her the guidance they need to excel.

“There should be more professors like him that motivate you to do more,” Castellanos said. “I decided I wanted a master’s in education, with the credentials to teach. I want to help in any way I can.”

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun.

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