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Accessing Higher Education

Cesar Sandoval entered unchartered territory among members of his family in August 2022 when he arrived at the University of Idaho as a mechanical engineering student.

Sandoval, a Jerome High School graduate and son of a migrant farmer, is a first-generation college student who attributes much of his success to the Juntos program, offered through UI Extension 4-H Youth Development.

Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish, provides resources and support to Latinx youth in grades eight to 12, helping them graduate from high school and access post-secondary education.

While Juntos typically operates as a stand-alone, after-school 4-H program, Jerome High School – where half of the study body is Hispanic – was the first to schedule Juntos during school hours for credit as an elective course, available to freshmen through seniors.

“You get more access to the students. You get more time for daily interaction. They also have a safe space in that classroom,” said Gretchen Manker, UI Extension educator who serves as Juntos program manager in Jerome County.

Sandoval was part of the first cohort of Jerome County Juntos graduates in May 2022, and he’s one of five Juntos participants from the high school now enrolled as freshmen at U of I.

Sandoval credits his former Juntos advisor, Eduardo Reyes, who now works as a U of I recruiter, with pushing him to go on to college.

“I learned how to give back to everyone, and I grew as a person in Juntos,” said Sandoval, who entered the program as a high school freshman. “For someone like me who wants to learn grow as a person, you could get all the help you needed and keep pushing toward your goals.”

In 2022, 91% of the 44 students enrolled in Juntos graduated from Jerome High School or an alternative school. By comparison, the most recent statewide data from the Idaho State Department of Education shows about 80% of the general student population graduated from high school, including 71.8% of Latinx students.

Teaching Life Skills

Juntos, offered in 15 states, is made possible through partnerships involving Extension educators, school and college administrators and staff and community volunteers.

The Juntos coordinator and experts from the community teach lessons in personal finance, basic cooking, nutrition, food safety, home ownership, resume writing, job interviewing and other life skills. Juntos students hear about scholarships and other financial aid options from College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) recruiters representing area colleges and universities. CAMP helps students with backgrounds in migrant or seasonal farm work succeed. Juntos families and students also collaborate in six annual family workshops.

“The first goal of Juntos is for families and students to work together,” Manker said.

Each Juntos class also has its own 4-H club, where students learn parliamentary procedure during biweekly meetings, elect officers, maintain logbooks and foster speaking and leadership skills.

Juntos participant Wendy Montano, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, is poised to be the first in her family to graduate from high school, let alone attend college. Because her Juntos instructor encouraged her to take college-level courses for dual credit, she’ll also leave Jerome High School at the end of the 2022-23 school year with an associate degree in psychology. She’s considering U of I among her options for postsecondary education.

“Before I started Juntos, my goal was just to get through high school because nobody in my family had ever graduated from high school,” Montano said. “Juntos opens your eyes and tells you there’s more opportunities than you think. I think it’s that they support you unconditionally. They’re always believing in you.”

Expanding Across Idaho

U of I’s Juntos program traces back to 2017, when the university awarded funds to start a two-year program to improve academic success of Latinx eighth graders at Jerome Middle School, called Go On. The program had 37 graduates.

In 2018, U of I partnered with North Carolina State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on a five-year, $1.28 million grant – half of which went to U of I – through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant established the Jerome High School Juntos program, which recently started its final year.

The Juntos program also returned for the current school year to Jerome Middle School’s eighth grade classrooms.

“I love the fact that it’s back,” said Jerome Middle School Vice Principal Sam Sharp. “I’m glad we have our eighth graders thinking about college.”

In 2019, U of I obtained another USDA-NIFA grant for $1.28 million over five years to start Juntos programs at Twin Falls Middle School, Twin Falls High School and Blaine County High School. Those programs were short-lived due to the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages. Tina Miller, UI Extension, Twin Falls County 4-H educator, has taken the lead to reboot the program at South Hills Middle School in Twin Falls.

Last year, U of I led the efforts in a joint project with Washington State University on a five-year, $1.28 million USDA-NIFA grant to start new Idaho Juntos programs in Canyon County and the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, as well as programs in Chelan and Whatcom counties in Washington.

Northwest Farm Credit Services has been so impressed by Juntos that it recently donated $80,000 to fund the programs in Jerome County through the end of 2024. “The Juntos 4-H program reaches more than 70 Latinx students in Jerome County and we respect the program’s record of success in helping many first-generation students develop a greater sense of belonging and confidence,” said Doug Robison, Idaho president of Northwest Farm Credit Services. “Students who participate in Juntos 4-H achieve higher grades and their probability of graduating from high school increases.”

A Payette County Juntos program is also planned.

“It helps parents and youth know they can go on – that they can graduate, and they have a possibility of looking in a broader way at what they can do as adults,” said Manker.

The $640,000 U of I obtained through the USDA NIFA grant awarded to North Carolina State was issued under award No. 2018-41520-28749. USDA NIFA issued the funding for the U of I-led Juntos project with Washington State under award No. 2021-41520-35353.

A man in a graduation cap and gown stands next to a woman holding an infant.
Cesar Sandoval was part of the first cohort of Jerome County Juntos graduate in May 2022.
A collage of six men and women wearing graduation cap and gowns and holding diplomas.
Along with Cesar Sandoval, six other Juntos participants graduated from Jerome High School in May 2022.
A University of Idaho student stands outside in front of a black sign with a large gold I.
Cesar Sandoval is a first-generation college student, studying mechanical engineer at U of I.

Article by John O’Connell, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Photos by Garrett Britton, University Communications and Marketing

Published in October 2022

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Barbara Petty