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Paying it forward

4-H specialist helps Oregon Latino youth succeed in college, life

At age 7, Mario Magaña worked on his family’s farm in México. He helped grow corn, sesame seeds, watermelon and more, while also raising cows, goats, horses, pigs and chickens.

Mario now works in Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences as an associate professor and 4-H Latino outreach specialist engaging underserved youth in Oregon.

“I love what I do because I have witnessed many youth and adults achieve their dreams,” Mario says. “I know many more will follow my footsteps, and that is what brings me joy and gives me the strength to continue this journey.”

Journey to Oregon State

Mario’s journey to Oregon State began in the summer of 1990 while he was picking apples in Washington and listening to a Spanish radio station. The host announced that Washington State University (WSU) was offering the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) and an opportunity to earn a General Educational Diploma (GED) in Spanish.

Mario took note, earned his GED that fall and planned to apply for any job that would provide benefits for him, his wife and two daughters. His WSU advisor, Ronald Rosebrook, urged him to think bigger.

“Ronald asked me, ‘What do you want your daughters to do when they grow up?’ When I responded that I wanted them to go to college and become teachers, lawyers or doctors, he told me that I had to show them it was possible. This triggered my interest in going to college.”

When Mario applied to Oregon State through the College Migrant Assistance Program (CAMP), his wife was pregnant with their third daughter, they had house and car payments, and he didn’t speak, read or write English. He left the house and new car behind, loaded his family into an old car and headed to Corvallis.

His interest in higher education far outweighed the obstacles.

“My first year in college was a big challenge,” Mario says. “I barely finished elementary school in México. My speaking, reading and writing skills were very poor in Spanish and I did not know more the 200 words in English when I started college. I had to translate my books into Spanish and then into basic Spanish so I could understand the subjects. I recorded most of my classes and listened to the recordings every night while I was in bed.”

To fund his education, Mario received financial assistance through grants, loans, work-study and scholarships, worked various part-time jobs and received food stamps to feed his family.

With hard work, dedication and perseverance, Mario graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree.

Thanks to the support of Scott Reed, PhD, now vice provost for university outreach and engagement, he received a teaching assistantship to continue on to graduate school. Mario earned his master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in 1999.

Serving youth with community-focused programs

Mario’s involvement with 4-H started as a PROMISE Intern in 1995 and evolved into a specially created position — 4-H Latino outreach county agent for Morrow and Umatilla counties.

“I created, developed and implemented after-school enrichment clubs, classes and events using fun, safe and educational environments,” Mario says. “I also created new programs, projects and activities that were culturally appropriate for Latino youth and families in Morrow and Umatilla counties.”

Today, Mario seeks to close achievement gaps among Oregon youth by expanding the population that 4-H serves.

“Oregon’s underserved youth significantly lag behind their peers in academic achievement,” Mario says. “Latinos, in particular, have an abnormally high dropout rate compared to their white peers.”

Mario says some contributing factors to the achievement gap include lack of access to culturally diverse role models, not knowing how to navigate higher education systems or being unaware of financial resources.

“When kids learn about post-secondary education they start working hard in middle school and high school — they build skills, confidence and interests so they can continue to achieve,” Mario says. “Unfortunately, Latinos don’t have this support to make decisions about college. In high school, it can become too late.”

This is where the value of 4-H comes in.

Mario says the Oregon 4-H Outreach Leadership Institute (OLI) was designed using a role model philosophy and includes different events focused on college preparation, leadership development, career exploration and community service.

“Participants acquire the necessary information and skills to apply to post-secondary educational institutions, as well as seek scholarships and learn how to become a professional and contributing member of society. Most importantly, they have the opportunity to meet college students and professionals from a range of academic backgrounds so they can see themselves as college students and young professionals.”

Mario has witnessed the positive impact of 4-H, but sees room for improvement.

“I believe in order for the 4-H program to survive and continue its mission, the faculty and the youth membership has to represent the state and country’s population,” Mario says. “The programming also needs to be more relevant and accessible to meet the needs and interests of today’s population.”

So why has Mario dedicated the past 19 years of his life to Oregon youth? The answer lies in his own story.

Determined to create a better life

To complete elementary school, Mario had to travel to a village about 7 miles away — some days on bicycle, some days on horse and some days by foot. By the age of 15, he finished elementary school and set his sights on middle school.

Mario’s parents, especially his mother, valued education. Scraping to pay for room and board, they sent six of their 15 kids to the nearest middle school 20 miles away.

After six months, his father told them that two boys needed to drop out and help on the farm. “My brother Daniel and I volunteered to drop out of school,” Mario says. “It was a very sad moment for both of us because we really loved going to school. I knew that education was the key to success, but I did not know how to continue on my own. I continued working on the family farm until I was 20 years old.”

Mario attributes his tenacity to his childhood. “It helped me develop the strength and the courage I now have to face many challenges and adapt to new situations in my professional life. Today, I feel nothing I have done in my professional career is as difficult as the things that I did as a child or young adult.”

Mario’s emigration to the United States was triggered by the U.S. corn industry disrupting the Mexican corn industry. “On many occasions, I did not have a penny in my pocket to buy a soda on the weekend, not to mention having the money to invite my girlfriend to dinner,” Mario says. “I started looking for new horizons outside of my hometown. I knew I needed to do something for myself and my future family.”

When he arrived in the United States, his goal was to work hard in the fields, save money and return to México to help improve his family’s life. He realized, after a few years of working in agriculture earning minimum wage, that this wouldn’t be possible. So, he planted roots and began his journey toward serving youth in Oregon.

“I feel very blessed and privileged for the opportunity to go to college, and I want to give back to this country that has given me so much,” Mario says.

“By reaching and serving the most vulnerable and less fortunate people in Oregon, I am helping hundreds of people who are in the same or worse situation than I was before I came to study at Oregon State University in 1990.”