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Eagle County: Hispanics’ hard road to college

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyHispanic students listen as Robert Cuevas describes his journey from Mexico as a child toh Eagle Valley High School and college to his positionas Berry Creek Middle School principal.
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GYPSUM, Colorado ” Robert Cuevas remembers cleaning dishes and clearing tables at Fortune’s Pizza years ago in Eagle while having to watch his friends relax, laugh and eat on a Friday night.

He was making money to buy his Reebok Pumps, sure, but it gave him an unsettling glimpse into his future. As someone who came to the United States as an illegal immigrant, there was a good chance that he, like the rest of his family, would be destined for a life of hard labor and construction.

Not for me, Cuevas said. He decided that after graduating from Eagle Valley High School, he would make it to college despite how poor his family was or where they came from. He didn’t want to wake up every morning and dread going to work.

Now, Cuevas has a masters degree and is principal at Berry Creek Middle School. He says he loves his job, and can’t wait to get to school every morning.

“I didn’t want to be a construction worker ” I needed to break that cycle of poverty,” Cuevas told an assembly of Hispanic students at Eagle Valley High School, most of whom have never had a family member go to college.

Many Hispanic students in the valley are battling generations of poverty when they’re making that decision whether to pursue college or not, like Cuevas did as a student.

Their parents didn’t go to college, and their grandparents didn’t go, and many of these families have very little money. Many students, feeling that need to work like their parents do to make ends meet, assume that college isn’t possible.

Cuevas tells these students it is possible. It just takes a tremendous amount of pride and willpower ” a drive to do something better in life, a drive he had when he was in school.

“Who’s going to break that cycle of poverty? Is it going to be you, or will it be your daughter, or your grandkids? Cuevas said. “Why wait?”

So, how does a Hispanic student living in the valley break out of a life of poverty?

Cuevas, whose family moved here from Chihuahua, Mexico, decided if he wanted to distinguish himself, he had to become an involved and active high school student.

He started playing football, worked hard in his classes, became a leader and helped out other new Hispanic students who were as confused in a new country as he used to be. He was even voted prom king ” a first for a Hispanic student at the school.

By becoming a leader and taking pride in everything he did, he was able to make a difference, Cuevas said.

“If you’re not participating, why?” Cuevas asked the students at Eagle Valley High School.

A few students said work gets in the way ” but, you’ll be working for the next 30 plus years of your life, Cuevas tells the students. Putting everything into school now could help you get into college, and eventually have a better life.

When it was time to start applying for colleges, Cuevas became very afraid. He didn’t have legal papers, and it was sort of his secret. He applied anyway ” hoping that his involvement in school and his dedication would pay off. It did.

Even after being accepted to college, life wasn’t immediately easier. He and his family were still poor. His parents believed in him though, worked extra hard and borrowed money from everyone they knew so their son could go to college.

Cuevas said it was hard to keep food in his house, so when he’d go fishing with his buddies, whatever they caught would be his dinner for the week.

“I had a freezer full of trout,” Cuevas said. “I learned all sorts of ways to cook trout.”

The students also heard the story of Esgar Acosta, who also graduated from Eagle Valley High School years ago. Acosta was raised in Mexico, and went through many of the same things Cuevas went through.

Acosta, who works at Alpine Bank, and has also been a police officer and teacher, said his college degree opened up a world of opportunities for him, and many young Hispanic students don’t realize what a degree can do for a career.

“Take the risk ” it doesn’t hurt,” Acosta said.

Acosta’s advice to the students who want to go to college: trust in your teachers.

He said teachers, principals and counselors want to help, and if you have a desire to go to college, let them know, and let them know every day. The teachers at Eagle Valley made a difference for him, Acosta said.

“You go to them and make them accountable ” have them show you how to do it and all the shortcuts,” Acosta said. “They’ve been through this, and they can help you.”

Cuevas said Hispanic students don’t have to necessarily think about going to four-year universities. Community colleges are great options, and you can learn high-paying trades like auto repair in two-year programs.

Freshman Arely Islas said she was inspired by the stories she heard from Cuevas and Acosta.

“They went through the same things we are going through ” if they can do it, we can do it,” Islas said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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