When Mario A. Magaña was 15, he made a decision – quit middle school in a town 30 miles from his home in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, Mexico, and return to his family’s farm so his younger siblings had the opportunity for an education.
Magaña loved going to school, but he sacrificed anyway – his father could no longer afford the cost of rent, meals and tuition for six children outside of home. So Magaña stayed to farm with his other brothers and sisters and parents, and gave up dreaming of an education.
The idea that Magaña would one day go to college, get an advanced degree and become a faculty member at a university seemed impossible. But Magaña did it, through a combination of determination, help from others, and a desire to create a better life for his daughters.
Magaña has been working as a 4-H Regional Extension Educator at Oregon State for the past nine years, creating, developing, and implementing educational programs and camps for Latino youth around Oregon. “I wanted to help Latino kids and families succeed, especially those who are in the same or worse situation that I was before. I wanted to give them educational and safe activities to go to,”Magaña said.
For Magaña, the road to an education was a long one. He came to the US when he was 20, enticed by a cousin who told him stories about cars, dancing, and – what particularly hit home with Magaña – money. “In the 1980s in Mexico there was a depression,” Magaña says. “We tried to raise crops, and we weren’t able to make back what we invested. My friends and family started going to the US. So I left too.”
Magaña came to the US without a visa, walking hours to cross the border. He spent the trip from Chula Vista, Calif. to Los Angeles in the trunk of a car. He arrived in the state of Washington in the middle of winter, ill-equipped for the harsh climate. When Magaña found a job, he gravitated toward what was most natural to him, agricultural work – picking apples, cherries and asparagus, driving tractors, tracks, and pruning fruit trees.
It took him nearly a decade before he was able to continue his education at a High School Equivalency program at Washington State University, which he’d heard about on the radio while harvesting apples. By this time, Magaña was married and had two daughters, and any life change he made would mean big implications for his family.
During the program, Magaña caught the attention of one of the counselors, who told him he should continue his education. He urged Magaña to apply to college so he could set a good example for his daughters. “When the counselor asked me for my social security number [Magaña and his wife, Norma, achieved legal status in 1987] so he could fill out a college application for me, I gave it to him only to please him, to make him happy,” Magaña says. He never thought anything would come of it. He didn’t think anything could.
A year later, though, Magaña got a call from a staff member at Oregon State’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP). He had been accepted at Oregon State University.
There were still difficult decisions to make. Magaña and Norma had a new car, were buying a home, and she was seven months pregnant. Who would pay for the car, and their house in Washington?
In the end, they returned the car, and agreed that Magaña would attend Oregon State for one year, to see if he’d make progress.
Initially college was just as daunting as the other decisions Magaña and Norma had been faced with. Magaña’s English was limited. So he sat in front of his classes with a tape recorder and listened to his lectures over and over again, and even listened to them in bed at night. He made a couple of friends who shared their notes with him. He bought a Spanish/English dictionary and used it so much it wouldn’t close anymore.
“After the first year, things started getting easier. I was at least able to understand the lectures,” Magaña says. “After two years I finally understood what my counselor was saying – I could do whatever I wanted.”
After an internship with 4-H in Yamhill County, Magaña decided what he wanted – to work with Latino kids. He got help from Scott Reed, then assistant Dean at the College of Forestry, applying for a Master’s degree in forestry (with minors in adult education and Spanish) at OSU. He focused his thesis project on the story of Mexicans working in Oregon’s forestry industry.
Reed had been impressed with Magaña when the two had met, when Magaña was an undergraduate PROMISE Intern in the College of Forestry. “He’s very intelligent and driven,” says Reed. “Mario creates pathways for people. He’s improving the lives of people who interact with him, and he’s doing it one family at a time.”
Currently, Magaña is hoping to develop a program that allows Extension educators to travel to the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán so they can learn the language and better understand students from Mexico.
Ultimately, Magaña wants to create programs in those Mexican states that will minimize immigration to the US. “I always ask the questions, ‘How can we make land in Mexico more productive? How can we make more technological advances to create jobs so that people don’t feel the need to come here, so that the family fabric in Mexico isn’t torn apart.”
Magaña has certainly become a role model for his daughters. Two of them – Ariz and Laura – currently attend OSU. Laura, a junior majoring in bioresource research , is a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholar, meaning her college education through the Ph.D. level is fully funded. Magaña isn’t sure whether his third daughter, Itzel, will attend OSU when it’s time to choose a college, but he’s confident that she’ll continue her education.
“My long-term goal is to help families to succeed and sustain our Mexican culture,” he says. “I want all families to be able to have what mine did.”
~ Celene Carillo
Daughter follows father’s footsteps
When the Gates Foundation letter arrived, Laura Magaña was facing a challenge tougher than any of her advanced-placement classes: managing five lively pre-teens at the 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp in Salem.
As a camp counselor, the Crescent Valley High School honor student was supervising middle-school girls. After each hectic day, she looked forward to winding down at evening campfire. One night, an unexpected visitor appeared. It was Laura’s mom, a mysterious letter tucked inside her purse.
In the fire’s golden light, a dazed Laura stood while the assistant camp director read the letter aloud. The 100-plus campers and counselors held their collective breath.
Laura had been chosen as a Gates Millennium Scholar. The award—given to outstanding minority students—would send her to college for up to 10 years, from her bachelor’s degree through her Ph.D., all expenses paid. Her strong academics (3.92 GPA) and leadership had been amply rewarded.
That moment was thrilling not only for Laura, but also for the Latino youths who witnessed it—living proof that college was within reach. The young campers were eager to hear her story and learn her strategies for landing scholarships. Laura took the stage. “They bombarded me with questions,” she says.
On a post-camp survey, several parents mentioned “the girl who received a full-ride scholarship” as highly motivating to their children. That was three years ago. The story has since become legendary in 4-H circles, spurring many kids to apply to summer camp and let their dreams soar.
“The main focus of the summer camps is making kids aware of career options and educational opportunities,” says Laura’s father, Associate Professor Mario A. Magaña, who brings Latino professionals—engineers, educators, lawyers, researchers—to speak to the campers. “We hear over and over that kids didn’t have much interest in higher education before going to camp. But afterwards, they share all their new dreams with us.”
Cultural identity is further enhanced by lessons in Mexican history and heroes, taught by Mexican teachers, as well as traditional dancing and singing passed down from the indigenous peoples of Latin America.
“Kids who grow up in the U.S. get disconnected from their culture,” says Magaña. “Most Latino kids lack this identity piece. They don’t know who they are—are they Mexican, Chicano, Latino or American?”
Laura is now a junior at OSU, majoring in bioresource research in the College of Agricultural Sciences and minoring in ethnic studies.
~ Lee Sherman