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College: Its not just a dream

Foundation enables students to obtain higher education
by: Jim Clark Ethan Wilson, top left, and Jessica Willis, top right, talk about how ECMC has inspired him to go to college next year. Lower photo: Susan Castillo, Oregon superintendent of schools, praises the students participating in ECMC at Centennial Learning Center, on June 2.

Anyone walking by the Centennial Learning Center library the late morning of June 2 may not have realized just how many lives were transformed that moment.

Inside the room, Susan Castillo, the state's schools superintendent, was announcing the names of nine seniors at the center who were to receive $6,000 college scholarships through the Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) Foundation.

On hand for the ceremony were foundation officials, as well as Samuel D. Henry, a Troutdale resident, Portland State University associate professor and state education board member.

'By reaching students early in high school, the ECMC Scholars Program gives students the skills and resources to realize their college goals,' the foundation states at its website, ecmc.org.

Indeed, Roxi Spain, a Centennial senior who plans on becoming a veterinarian, said the program introduced her to college life.

'ECMC allowed me to plan for college knowing that I had money to start off with,' she said.

Targeting students

The foundation operates out of Minnesota and was developed to assist students in Oregon, Virginia and Connecticut who need financial and/or academic assistance to go to college. According to Centennial Learning Center Principal Jamie Juenemann, the school began working with the foundation in 2006 and has worked with 40 students.

Students who participate in the program apply at the end of their sophomore year. They set academic and personal goals, which can include a specific grade-point average, regular attendance and taking college-level courses.

The students are also mentored by an adviser-teacher as well as staff members and participate in foundation functions, including college tours. The students work on leadership and other skills through team-building exercises and by sharing their experiences with younger students, and the students meet as a group once or twice a month.

Upon completion of the program, the scholars receive $4,000 for their first year in college and, if they continue to qualify, $2,000 for their second.

Castillo said the program gives the students the chance to reach for a better life.

'I just want to tell you, once you get your education, no one can take that away from you,' Castillo told the students. 'You are going to be able to take advantage of opportunities in your future because you were a part of this.'

A mother's dream

Sandra Wilson said 'we're in a tizzy around here' since she learned her son, Ethan, a Centennial Learning Center graduating senior, can go to Mt. Hood Community College next fall, thanks to the foundation.

She noted that she's a widow whose health challenges kept her from working, which meant she and her son had to live on Social Security disability benefits. Until the foundation stepped in, she said, college was pretty much out of the question for Ethan.

'I am so proud,' she said, also crediting Centennial for making him a successful student. 'He's just enthusiastic and very, very happy about it.'

She added that Ethan, 19, is considering becoming a teacher or an electrician or any number of things.

'Without this program, I probably never would've considered trying,' he said. 'It's given me experience outside my comfort zone.'

For example, he said, by attending dinners sponsored by the program, he's learned how to interact well with others and speak with confidence.

'Now I feel like I can try to go into situations and try different things. I'm not so nervous when I talk to people.'

Jessica Willis, 20, a junior at Portland State University, is studying social work. She also attended Centennial Learning Center. She noted that Centennial and the foundation turned her from a student who had been expelled twice from another East County high school into the academically minded woman she is today.

'I'm actually on a campus doing the work and doing fine,' she said with a smile.

Laura Boone, Centennial Learning Center's school-to-work coordinator, oversees the program at the center, and noted the program has inspired students, including those who are not in it, to see that college is within reach.

'The expectation now is not if you're going to college - it's where,' she said.