CORVALLIS - When Oregon State University first planted the seeds of its Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience program in Oregon middle schools in 1988, educators hoped SMILE would give disadvantaged students the skills to make it at the university level.
Now, educators are seeing the results of their efforts as Roberto Martinez, the first SMILE program participant ever to graduate from college, prepares to accept his bachelor's degree in business from OSU on June 14.
Growing up among the potato, onion and sugar beet fields of Nyssa, Ore., and spending his summers working the harvests, Martinez said he knew that there had to be life beyond the horizons of the Oregon-Idaho border country. But it wasn't until he enrolled in SMILE that he got his first real picture of higher education.
"I have six older brothers and sisters, but none of them have ever been to college," Martinez said. "I'm the first. So, SMILE was a help in introducing me to university life. It introduced me to other OSU students."
And that, Martinez added, gave him a boost in that "huge, difficult step" of leaving home to attend a major university.
SMILE is designed for minority and disadvantaged students in grades 4-12. It operates in eight rural Oregon communities and provides group activities in math, science and other studies. As part of the SMILE curriculum, students take part in field trips, including annual trips to OSU.
And, although when Martinez graduated from high school he decided to go to college at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, he couldn't forget his experiences at OSU. After one year he transferred to Corvallis to "see the other side of the mountains" and take advantage of opportunities at OSU.
"It was the best decision I ever made," he said.
During his first year in Corvallis, Martinez joined the Hispanic Student Union, and helped found Baila Con Mexico (Dance With Mexico) a student-run Mexican folk dance group that performs at campus and community events.
While SMILE has helped Martinez make connections on campus, and even helped him find some student scholarships, the academic lifestyle is still arduous, he said.
He has held part-time jobs each term - full-time summers - and has been active in community affairs. In addition to his studies and work, he is active in Delta Chi fraternity, holding a number of fraternity offices and winning several awards, including the luminary award for the member most active outside the fraternity system.
His current focus is finding a job after graduation in management information systems.
Martinez stresses that his path hasn't been easy, but there are people eager to help all along the way, he said. He urges students to learn all they can and to work to make things happen.
"SMILE definitely helps students realize they can go to college," he said, but once at college, "students have to go out and get involved."