Education supporter honored

FRESNO -- When Andrew González graduated from California State University, Chico with a degree in International Relations, he aspired to work for the United Nations.

The dream faded when he went to work at a coffee shop in his native Ventura County. He then jumped at the chance to work with the Hispanic College Fund in the Bay area when they offered him a job shortly after.

Four years later, González is director of the fund's Hispanic Youth Institute in the Central Valley. More importantly, he believes he's found his passion: Helping Latino students succeed.

"I think many Latino students across the nation don't have a sense of identity. Many of them have confessed to me that they purposely get bad grades because getting good grades in school is not a 'Mexican' thing. I can't believe my ears," said González.

"Do they know about the contributions of their ancestors? Do they know about these advanced civilizations who were incredibly knowledgeable in math, science and astronomy? I realized that many of these kids grow up without knowing their history and as a result, have big misconceptions about themselves."

His main role with the fund is to empower and motivate more Latinos to go to college.

That effort has resulted in González, 29, being named one of 12 national 'Líderes' (Leaders) by the MillerCoors program.

The news came as a big surprise.

"I was really humbled. To find out that it was my colleagues that nominated me for this award after they have gotten to know me pretty well was incredibly humbling. I was simply honored, to say the least, but also very surprised. I accepted both the nomination and recognition," said González.

Every summer, González flies from the fund offices in Washington, D.C. to Fresno to organize the Hispanic Youth Institute. The week-long program at Fresno State University targets low-income, at-risk students. Most are first-generation Latino students whose parents are migrant workers and who live in rural communities.

Sometimes, the students are migrant workers themselves, struggling between going to school and their commitment to contribute to their families income. The pressure is sometimes too much to handle.

But, the one thing they all have in common is their potential to achieve great success if only they had the resources, knowledge and tools to successfully graduate from high school and hopefully, with the help of the Institute's workshops, get motivated and inspired to go on and successfully apply and be accepted to a college of their choice.

González said these students give his job meaning.

"These are great students who are hungry for an opportunity. I've been to almost every site nationally and as far as potential that I see, central valley students have it the most," said González.

González was born in Santa Bárbara and grew up in Santa Paula. His parents worked in the fields, but they stressed the importance of an education.

González believes many Latinos don't go to college due to a lack of self-confidence.

"It's important to understand the kind of students I work with. For many of them, going to college is venturing out into unchartered territory. Its the first time anyone in their family has gone so far as to even finish grade school. They don't know what to expect and worry about not having any friends when they get to college. They fear being left out and the program and I do everything in our power to ensure they have support and that none of their fears become a reality," said González.

When he is unable to get through students, the summer program hosts a string of workshops to help boost their self-confidence by providing information on college admissions and financial aid. They also get one-on-one mentoring from college students like González himself, or Fresno State professors and community volunteers. They encourage students to give back to their communities, get involved and support one another.

González said finances are a major reason why many Latino students turn college away, among others.

"Networking is also a barrier because there is no professional legacy in these students' families and they don't know what to do when they complete college. Other challenges I see involve their citizenship status and most apparent, the lack of programs and opportunities to gear them in the right direction. When I go to Silicon Valley or Los Ángeles, I meet students who have been exposed to at least one solid program that has helped them in one way or another, but here, rarely do I encounter the same," said González.

He once calculated that it takes approximately 5,000 hours to put a program together -- about 50 man-hours per student. At the end of the day, he said, the transformation the students make at the end of the program make him realize what major contributions they can bring to companies in the valley.

"These Latino students have overcome an overwhelming number of obstacles just to graduate from high school, let alone college and research shows that if they get that far, they carry a high degree of hope and that is a human capital gold mine," said González.

The MillerCoors Líder of the year will be determined by online voting, with the winner getting $25,000. If he wins, González wants to open the Hispanic Professionals Institute to help lure talented Latino recent college graduates back to the Valley and offer them networking opportunities, professional job training like e-mail writing and résumé building.

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