A place for all

Art found on the Centro Cultural Cesar Chavez building.

Summer Escalera empowers Latinx students to see themselves at OSU.

One of the most important aspects of attending college is feeling like you belong. Summer Escalera — a program created by the Latino Network in partnership with Oregon State and other universities — shows Latinx students that they do. And any path is theirs to choose. 

This four week program takes place in the summer of students’ junior year of high school, with the last week taking place at a university. At Oregon State, students stay on campus to get a first-hand experience of residence halls and the Corvallis community. During their visit, they tour the university, discover their major options, gain new skills and work directly with mentors. In addition, students focus on community and team building, communication and tools to navigate through high school — including transcripts, drafting résumés and scholarship essays, practicing interviews and creating a path to graduation.

David Contreras-Machado, associate director of the Latino Network’s department of educational access programs, says Summer Escalera was built around universities so students could get an accurate glimpse of what college life is really like. And many students — several of whom are first generation — haven’t been away from home for long periods of time. Summer Escalera gives them the chance to see how they feel about being somewhere new. Learning more about campus communities and the resources that are available to them helps to remove any apprehension or fear.

“It gives them a sense of freedom — a sense of ownership of their future,” he says.

An important goal of Summer Escalera is to remove barriers — especially when it comes to accessibility. Through its partnerships with universities like OSU, Summer Escalera addresses common obstacles including cost, eligibility, social stigmas and cultural/familial expectations — creating a program that works for everyone. And for first-generation students who haven’t been exposed to the process of applying for and attending college, the program provides clarity and direction.

Summer Escalera also aims to inspire students to explore fields like STEM, which typically have less Latinx representation. Carol McKiel, recruitment coordinator in the College of Science, leads tours where students explore labs hands-on — and learn about topics like the connection between fruit flies and cancer research.

“My goal is to get them excited about being a student in the college and help them realize that there’s a place for them here,” she says.

Amada Diaz De La Vega, youth engagement specialist at the Latino Network, adds that to feel a sense of belonging, it’s important for students to see people on campus who look like them. Summer Escalera guest speakers who identify as first-generation, Black, Indigenous or people of color share their educational journey and answer questions to help students feel seen and welcome. 

Students also develop interpersonal skills by attending field trips and participating in small group activities — where they have an opportunity to bond with, motivate and encourage one another.

All of these experiences culminate with students feeling inspired, reassured and excited for their future.

“We really want them to walk away with the confidence to explore what they want to pursue and the knowledge of how to get there,” Diaz De La Vega says.

Because of programs like Summer Escalera, they will.