Hilda Escalera

Hilda Escalera

McMinnville, OR. — When Hilda Escalera arrived at Linfield College, the Latino students she met were just like herself. They came from families whose paychecks didn’t go far enough, and they were the first in their family to attend college.

“I felt some level of support, but I also felt somewhat isolated and overwhelmed,” said Escalera, the oldest of eight siblings. “I had a limited network of people, especially people that I could relate to culturally.”

With backing from Linfield College President Thomas Hellie, she co-founded the student group Latinos Adelante, which means “Go forth.” The group mentored Latino newcomers, provided leadership opportunities, and organized events that celebrated Latino culture.

“We just needed more support,” said Escalera, who graduated last year and now serves at Linfield as a mentoring coordinator through the AmeriCorps Retention Project. Many of the students she and her friends mentored are now helping others, promoting education among local Latino families.

“We want to let young people know it’s possible for them to go to college, whether it’s a community college, public university or small private college,” Escalera said. “Higher education is often not part of their mindset. We tell them, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ Education is the best form of helping our families.”

For the past three years, Latinos Adelante has collaborated with McMinnville High School to bridge the communication gap with parents in the school’s English Language Development program. Parental involvement is often crucial to children’s academic success, but when the high school offered monthly programs for parents, few showed up. Many parents don’t speak English and had not attended high school themselves, making visits intimidating.

Then Latinos Adelante got involved. Its members say the questions and concerns are the same ones their own parents had. They have made hundreds of phone calls to invite parents to the meetings, where they interpret English to Spanish, babysit, and explain graduation requirements. They also share their convictions about the value of education. Meetings now have the largest turnouts the school has ever seen.

“Our high school students at the meetings really focus when the Linfield students introduce themselves,” said Kristian Frack, vice principal and Migrant Program Coordinator at McMinnville High School. “I think the example they provide, as successful Latino college students, is as powerful as anything else communicated.”

“Latinos Adelante helped me stay in college, because I was helping others,” Escalera said. “Now other students are doing the same thing. They’re not just showing up. They’re making meaningful connections.”

Escalera wants college to open doors for others, just as it did for her. At Linfield, she learned about Latin American politics and history, studied abroad in Ecuador, and wrote her senior thesis about Arizona’s controversial immigration law. She also served as a student intern with the MESA College initiative, helping low-income students in Oregon.

Through her AmeriCorps position, Escalera recently established RISE, a college student-to-youth mentoring program in McMinnville. But she’s also looking ahead.

“I have dreams and goals that I want to achieve,” said Escalera, who plans to attend graduate school to study public policy.