Hillsboro program promotes education
MariaEugenia Olivar wants to break down barriers.
The Hillsboro resident has spent the better part of a decade working to better the lives of the area's migrant community through her Family University program, and is now passing on the baton to a new generation of educators working to level out the playing field at the community level.
Hillsboro, like the U.S., is seen by many as a "melting pot," home to a diverse array of people and cultures from all over the globe. But Olivar said barriers still find ways to separate people from thriving — some barriers we can see, she said, and others we cannot, or choose not to.
In 2011, Olivar opened Family University, or FAMU, which provides support and education to migrant families in Hillsboro.
Inspiration for the program came from her mother, who became pregnant as a teenager in Venezuela and wasn't able to continue her education, she said. Her mother's struggles sparked the idea for Olivar to build a program that could assist young parents in continuing their own education.
"Working in Hillsboro already for about six years as an (English Language) specialist, and working with migrant families, I realized that I had an opportunity as a migrant education teacher to probably make this dream come true," she said.
The program ran successfully for years, but after an opportunity came up for Olivar in 2015, she struggled to find someone who would take over and keep the program afloat, she said. The program ended shortly after.
But three years later, FAMU has reopened, running for the first time since 2015 at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro. Olivar, a dual-language teacher on special assignment with the Hillsboro School District, met the district's recently hired family resource officer, Dorotea Lopez, and the two began discussing the once open FAMU, she said.
"Dorotea explained her vision and I realized that is was very similar and perfect to open family university again," Olivar said.
Olivar took Lopez under her wing, she said. Just five weeks later, the program was back open to families in Hillsboro.
"Once I became her mentor, we began having more and more conversations about her vision, how her heart really works in creating these opportunities for families," Olivar said. "Then I asked the question, 'Would you like to reopen this program and can I guide you through it?'"
FAMU provides opportunities for community members to further their education in more ways than one.
What was once only open to migrant families, the program is open to parents from all backgrounds in the Hillsboro School District, Olivar said.
"You see entire families, even grandmothers, coming all together and each one going to their different classes," Olivar said. "Abuelitas come to read in Spanish to the kids in preschool. Some of them don't know how to read but they use the picture books and they tell beautiful stories. We value all that. That is part of what our students and our community needs."
When she initially began developing a plan for the program, Olivar learned of a similar program in Woodburn. After meeting with several administrators there, Olivar began building her own version, borrowing the name "Family University" and the association with a local community college to bring GED classes, she said.
FAMU offers courses for parents to pursue their GED, with instructors from Portland Community College, English classes, Spanish classes, technology classes and workshops that vary from how to understand your civil and labor rights to how to read your child's report card, she said.
The program also provides childcare, preschool classes and tutoring for children of all ages while parents attend classes. All elements of the program are free to participants.
Nearly all of the volunteers are high school students, Olivar said.
"The high school volunteers are really the core of this program," she said. "They were the ones that would not let this program die."
Students from all over the Hillsboro district come together on Tuesday and Thursday nights to teach classes and help take care of the younger children, Olivar said.
"They can connect their own struggles and the struggles of their families with the families that come here, and some of them bring their parents in," she said.
Martha Gongora is a mother of five who is currently taking computer courses at FAMU. Though having five children doesn't allow for much spare time, she is taking the courses to further her own education and serve as a role model, she said.
"For me, it's a way to teach my sons and my daughters that education is so important," Gongora said. "Taking this opportunity is a great way to show them that it's never too late to learn something and to never give up when you have an opportunity."
Moving to the United States from Yucatán, Mexico when she was 13, she has never stopped pursuing an education, she said.
Graduating from Glencoe High School and attending Oregon State University for several years, Gongora is raising her children in the Hillsboro district and pushing her children to do their very best in school.
"That's one way that I motivate myself, seeing my kids," Gongora said. "If you give up, your kids will give up."
Administrators plan to offer the program twice per year with six- to eight-week-long sessions, in the spring and summer. Although Olivar is helping with the programs reopening, she will leave the rest to Lopez and the students who volunteer, she said.
"I'm ready to pass on all the batons of things I have done to the new people that come with energy," Olivar said, "They are closer in generation to our students, they have a more progressive vision of what they want and where they are going to lead this country and our community to."
Olivar said she feels proud of what she has started, and humbled by the many selfless people who have come together to help the program continue on.
"It brought together everybody, not only volunteers from the community and the high school students, but our admins and our families together as parents, as community members," she said. "That's what I love about this program the most, how it brings people together and people don't see race, they don't see color, they don't see language, they are parents and they come here and they are all together as a community."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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