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Verduzco helping valley Latinos get a leg up

Eben Harrell
Ramon Verduzco, the Roaring Fork School District's Pre-Collegiate Program coordinator, is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of local Latinos. Aspen Times photo/Nick Saucier.
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In conversation, Ramon Verduzco comes across as a warm, affable man. When he starts talking about his efforts to get Latinos into college, however, that changes. Verduzco’s shoulders hunch, his face tightens, and his big hands spring into action.

Suddenly, he’s a general laying out a battle plan. Three years – that’s what the Roaring Fork School District has given Verduzco to see if he can get local Latino students to go to college. Three years to make a difference; three years to do battle against an altogether different but equally menacing axis of evil: poverty, ignorance and despair.

Verduzco runs the Pre-Collegiate Program, a joint initiative between the Aspen Valley Community Foundation, Colorado Mountain College, the University of Colorado and the Roaring Fork School District. The program comprises students from sixth to 10th grade, almost exclusively Latino, whose parents have no higher education.

In the past, a high school diploma was considered a success in most of these families. It’s not a question of laziness. For poor Latino families, the urgency of entering adulthood and becoming a viable wage-earner often trumps any ideal of higher education.

Not so with Verduzco, who has his eyes set firmly on the top of the ivy tower. The pilot program, which he hopes will one day send 100 percent of local Latino students to college, is in the second of a three-year trial period.

Verduzco knows the challenges. He was once an outsider. The son of a wealthy family in Mexico, with two degrees from Mexican universities, his first job as a Mexican immigrant in Aspen was working maintenance at a local hotel, just another among the host of dark, misunderstood faces. Even after 20 years he struggles to squeeze his identity through a heavy accent and jerky syntax. He pronounces “campus” the way Aspenites refer to a local upscale Italian bistro: “Campo.”

“Walk into any building and tell me how many Latinos do you see in administrative positions, do you see at all?” Verduzco says. “That’s got to change. If not, we’ll continue to have a segregated society.”

Verduzco does not mess around with multiculturalism. To him, the Latino’s instinct to isolate and insulate – to become the huddled masses – is dangerous. It’s America or nothing.

“We [Latinos] have a rich heritage. And that should be celebrated. But to be successful in America we have to compete on the same standards; we can’t play by our own rules. Latino leaders can’t be incubated. They must be not just bilingual but bicultural,” he says.

The staple of the pre-collegiate initiative is its mentor program. Around two dozen college-educated locals, screened by Verduzco, mentor a group of seven or eight students. They meet once every two weeks, discussing various topics from study skills to self-realization. Bill Lorah, a retired engineer from Glenwood Springs who mentors a group of eighth-graders, writes letters to his students throughout the summer, addressing each one “Dear College Bound Student.”

“My job is to give them dreams. My students are a huge resource, and we should give them the best opportunity possible to help this country,” Lorah says.

Verduzco also targets the parents. For three Saturdays in June, parents, many of whom don’t speak English, none of whom have gone to college, will shuffle into Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus. They meet one another, take basic computer classes, spend an afternoon strolling the grounds. The hope is that a college campus, so far removed from the woes of everyday life, will inspire the parents.

Verduzco admits that even with numerous scholarships available, the cost of a university education provides a huge barrier to Latinos, especially for families disqualified due to their alien status. The program is also struggling to attract enough mentors, and there’s always a possibility the budget-strapped school district will cut funding after next year. Like a meticulous general, Verduzco deals with each obstacle as it comes along. For now, his mission is to mobilize a population.

“Right now I don’t have the answers but I know the needs,” he says. “Some ask whether the community can afford to live with the price of college. I ask the community instead, ‘Can you afford not to?’

“Our community needs educated leaders. There’s only one way to accomplish that: education.”

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com

n see Verduzco on page A7

n continued from page A1

“To be successful in America we have to compete on the same standards. We can’t play by our own rules.”

– Ramon Verduzco


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