Al Exito members

Al Éxito members Kaitlyn Baeza and Luis Lozano. Since it came to Ottumwa High School three years ago, the program has provided continued support for first-generation students hoping to attend post-secondary education.

OTTUMWA — For many high school students, the question “will you be attending college?” never requires much consideration. It’s an expectation laid on them from a very young age by parents, friends, and educators.

However, many others, especially first-generation Americans whose parents immigrated here and have no post-secondary education, have no such expectation. To make matters worse, parents who don’t speak english are often unable to access much of the school-provided information on scholarships, tuition, and academics required to apply for college, and so in turn are unable to aide their children.

“When you’re not well informed about that stuff, in order to get there it takes a lot of information and your own time,” explained OHS junior Luis Lozano.

Al Éxito wants to change all that.

Roughly translating as “to success,” Al Éxito is a state-wide grant-funded organization that provides a path to higher education for Latino high school students. Its chapter at Ottumwa High School, coordinated by Juanita Weyenberg, is set to begin its fourth year at the school, and had its introductory meeting Wednesday for upcoming freshmen. The club’s weekly meetings, which are conducted in both English and Spanish, provide students with crucial information required to apply for college.

“The majority of our students are first generation, so when we’re able to work with the students and their parents so that their parents understand why it’s important, it helps for them to understand the terminology or the whys,” said Weyenberg.

But as she made clear, the program is far more than just a series of weekly information sessions.

“Not only are we guiding them to go to college,” she said, “But we’re giving them a pathway of how to get there.”

That pathway includes college campus tours as well as access to internships, job shadow opportunities, resume and interview workshops, seminars on mental health, and admittance to job fairs both across Iowa and out of state. Al Éxito also conducts group study sessions for its members so that they stay on top of their schoolwork, something that’s sometimes difficult at home.

“A lot of times they don’t know how to study,” said Weyenberg. “One thing I see a lot with our students is that they help their parents a lot at home, and this time gets them out of the house lets them focus on their homework.”

The program also provides parents with school and college-related information. Weyenberg hosts two yearly meetings for parents whose children are in Al Éxito, which normally see 100 percent attendance.

“That to me shows they care about their students’ education and what they’re going to do afterward,” she said. “Parents are very open, they’re very involved, which makes me very happy because when we do have a meeting, they attend.”

In its three years at the high school, Al Éxito has produced a record of academic success. Nine out of ten Al Éxito students who graduated in the OHS Class of 2018 started attending college this fall, and two of them received full-ride scholarships. The rest of the graduates all received additional scholarships through Al Éxito and Indian Hills.

“That’s rewarding to know,” said Weyenberg. “She’s fulfilling what we envisioned for the program.”

Al Éxito also stresses the importance of civic engagement for its members. Even if they don’t intend to wear the Silver Cord at graduation, all Al Éxito members are required to complete a certain number of Silver Cord community service hours and last year two members served on the Make Ottumwa Shine committee. The club also managed to raise $400 for the Wilson playground fundraiser, and thanks to a youth grant from the Legacy Foundation, will start providing bilingual story time at the Ottumwa Public Library for children in the community.

“Al Éxito for me sounds like success,” said OHS senior and Al Éxito member Daniela Ramirez. Ramirez, who’s been a member of the club since its first year at the school, will be the first person in her family to attend college. “I’m trying to make everybody proud.”

Ramirez, who wants to study either criminal justice or visual arts at the University of Iowa, described Al Éxito as more than just an extracurricular activity. She said it’s like a family.

“It’s more than just ‘hey, go to college, this is how,’” said Lozano in agreement. “It’s about what it means to you, why you want to do this, how you and your family feels about you going to college. For me, going to college means furthering my education, bettering myself, and personal growth.”

Lozano, who will graduate in 2022, plans to study automotive engineering at Iowa State.

Both students agreed that the program also provides an important connection with and celebration of Latino culture.

“The more you get into this club, the more you start finding out stuff from our culture, from different peoples’ culture,” said Ramirez. “We had dilemmas where people think Hispanics or Latinos are only from Mexico. We have people from Guatemala, El Salvador, various places.”

“Latin America’s pretty big,” Lozano added with a laugh.

When asked if they have any role models they look up to, both students agreed that Weyenberg has been a huge influence on them.

“Juanita’s always been there for me,” said Ramirez. “Always telling me how to get to college, every step of the way.”

It’s clear that Weyenberg just seems happy to be making an impact on the community.

“Last week, I received a text from one of the [graduated] students and she said ‘I’m officially a college student,’” Weyenberg said. “She had bought her books. So to me, that’s rewarding.”

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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