FOREST GROVE, Ore. – A senior at Forest Grove High School will meet First Lady Michelle Obama at a mentoring summit in Washington, D.C., next week.
Joel Cazares was invited by the National 4-H Council to attend the invitation-only National Mentoring Summit on Jan. 25 at the Library of Congress where he will also meet Attorney General Eric Holder.
Cazares was invited because he is a participant in Tech Wizards, a 4-H program run by the Oregon State University Extension Service in Washington County.
Launched in 1998, the bilingual after-school program teaches hands-on technological skills to low-income, marginalized youth ages 8 through 18 who are at risk of dropping out of school. About 1,000 students have participated in the program, and most go on to college, according to the program's director, Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas. Although Latinos are the targeted audience, any student can participate.
The students learn how to create websites, produce videos and podcasts, make computerized maps and build robots out of Legos. They gather confidence and learn to make decisions, set goals, think critically, work with a team, be accountable and communicate effectively, educators say. The overarching goal is to inspire them to go to college, get involved in their communities and choose careers in fields like science and engineering.
The program is one of three 4-H programs in the country that has been chosen to be replicated nationwide by the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Merecias-Cuevas and several colleagues recently returned from Washington, D.C., where they trained staff and faculty of 23 universities to implement the program. Merecias-Cuevas, who is Cazares' mentor, will also attend the summit.
Cazares, 18, got involved with Tech Wizards during his sophomore year after friends encouraged him to join. Through the program, he has restored creeks, taught high school students how to teach basic computer skills, and mentored elementary students in Lego robotics.
Mentoring – both of and by the students – is a key part of the program.
"From being mentored, I learned that there's actually help from people,” Cazares said. “All the help is there, but we are the ones who have to take the responsibility to actually ask for it."
Cazares, who was born in California but spent 13 years of his childhood in Mexico, plans to attend law school. He's currently recruiting new members for Tech Wizards, and intends to stay connected with the club after graduation.
"It's a moral requirement for me," he said. "If what I do in any sense helps my high school or any other high school, I will be more than glad to be there for them."
The summit is hosted by MENTOR, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In December, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation designating January as National Mentoring Month.
Merecias-Cuevas and Cazares will leave for Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 and will return on Jan. 26.
"I have to be back for school because it's finals week," Cazares said.