High school seniors from across the country are checking their email inboxes this month, eagerly awaiting acceptance letters from colleges and universities. It can be an exciting and stressful time for anyone. But here in the valley, one group of students is ready. FM89’s Christina Lopez reports on one local program that is celebrating 25 years of helping make college dreams a reality.
On this chilly December Saturday members of the local Ivy League Project, a group of 20 students from across the Central Valley ranging from fourth graders to high school seniors, form a circle inside the Annadale Baptist Church in Sanger, California.
The mission is to leave their nerves at the door and introduce their partner to others within the circle.
“This is my new friend, Auturo Murillo, um, his favorite color is red. He likes to play soccer,” said one student.
“Eye contact. Excellent. Next,” said Martin Mares, CEO and Founder of the Ivy League Project.
The voice in the center of the circle belongs to Mr. Mares who works full-time for the Ivy League Project, a nonprofit with a radical idea: take high school kids from one of the state’s poorest communities to visit the nation’s most prestigious universities.
The idea began at a leadership summit for junior high school students in 1992 at John C. Martinez Junior High School in Parlier. The summit featured Latino author and speaker Ruben Navarrette.
Navarrette, a Sanger High School graduate, is also a syndicated columnist and author of the book, “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.” Navarrette was also the spark behind the idea.
“Ruben was instrumental in sharing with me, encouraging me to think about taking some kids from Parlier to visit Harvard,” said Mares. “When he first told me, I thought he was crazy, absolutely crazy -- taking kids from one of the fourth poorest city -- Parlier, over to visit Harvard, one of the most prominent, selective universities in the world. I also thought he was crazy, too.”
So crazy that Mares pitched the idea to the Parlier Unified School District Board and its superintendent.
“‘In fact,’ he said, ‘I want our students to go, to attend the Cal Berkeleys, the Stanfords, the UCLAs, the Harvards, and Yales. Martin, you’re the man for this job,’” said Mares.
With the District’s support and Mares’ drive, the Ivy League Project was born. Mares flew six students from Parlier during the project’s inaugural trip to the east coast in the Spring of ‘92.
“We decided to select six kids. We had an application process and we had a couple of eighth graders, we had a couple of freshmen, sophomores, and I think one senior, I believe, and we ventured out into the east coast,” said Mares. “It was very difficult. We were supposed to go in the fall but we went in the spring because we didn’t have too much money. When we first went out, it was a five-day tour.”
Mares, along with his students, raised money to pay for transportation, meals, and airfare -- totaling $700. At the time, Mares was a full-time educator at John C. Martinez Junior High School.
“On the day we flew in I was very nervous because I had to drive in Boston and it was some city I’d never driven in, too, not like today when you have GPS, you can go anywhere and know where you’re going,” said Mares. “We had to rely on a map!”
With no directions and little funds, Mares and his cohort spent the night in sleeping bags inside Harvard dorm rooms belonging to Latino students.
“It was very difficult. We drove a van. We went from campus to campus,” said Mares. “We went to Harvard, Yale, and M.I.T. during the week and it was very eye-opening for me because -- I found it very challenging but it was exciting, too, because we were taking some kids, you know, from rural America whose parents were farm workers over to these elite universities and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Although the trip came with its logistical challenges, Mares and his students were pleasantly surprised in other areas.
“One of my boys said, ‘Mr. Mares, what do the kids dress like? Do they dress in blue blazers and khaki pants?’ I said, ‘I have no idea but when we get there we’ll check them out.’ I thought it was going to be all predominantly all Angelo and lo and behold I saw people of color there,” said Mares.
In 1992, the Ivy League Project was the first of its kind in the state let alone the Central Valley.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in me. I come from a small community called Parlier, poverty rate is very, very high,” said Mares. “A lot of people don’t have high expectations. It’s a very deserted area.”
During the project’s onset, Mares was met with cynicism.
“When I first told people that we were going to go to Harvard, they laughed at me. They said, ‘Martin, are you crazy? Martin, these are Latino kids; these are farm working kids; they don’t go to Harvard. They don’t go to Yale, M.I.T. You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘You know what, that just gave me mas ganas -- that gave me more enthusiasm, encouragement.’ I said, ‘Just wait to you see what happens!’ I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was like, ‘I’m gonna prove you wrong.’ Because I love challenges,” said Mares.
Mares wasn’t the only one encountering bigotry.
“We had to raise money and students were encountering offensive remarks. We had some teachers, community members, and people were saying, ‘You can’t afford the $30,000 fee. How are you going to pay for that? Why are you even taking these courses? Why? Why? Why?’ And I just told these students to ‘stay focused, stay focused, and stay focused. We’re gonna change the world, guys!’ On this parameter, you had people telling them, ‘No. No, you’re too poor. You’re not smart enough.’ And then you had the other side, you had me telling them, ‘Don’t be a chimp, be a champ.’ I was, you know, talking to them about inspiring them,” said Mares. “I was talking to them, speaking to them telling them they were destined for greatness.”
And greatness came as the Project’s success proved the naysayers wrong. Two years later, something remarkable happened.
“We had our first three of students that were sophomores accepted to Ivy League universities,” said Mares. “All of a sudden we were on the front page of The Fresno Bee, “Three Parlier Students Accepted to Ivy League Universities” and lo and behold, I got phone calls from all over the area, all over the State of California people were asking me how did I get three kids from one of the poorest high schools in America with only one AP course, mind you, but yet I told them we had a plan.”
That plan involved academic counseling, fundraising, and mentoring on Saturday mornings. The following year, the program had four students accepted to universities like Princeton and Brown.
One story of success sticks out especially in Mares’ mind.
“I do recall the first year that one of my boys that got accepted to every school possible, Carlos Paz, didn’t get accepted to Harvard. I remember asking the admission officer at Harvard, ‘Why didn’t accept my boy at Harvard?’ He told me, ‘Oh, Martin, we just thought the transition would be too difficult -- going from an all-Latino high school with only one AP course and going to a prestigious university such as Harvard. We just didn’t think he had it in him.’ I said, ‘That’s cool. I just wanted to know why ‘cause I just wanted to let you know that he’s going to Yale which is your archrival!’” said Mares.
That student, Carlos Paz, went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School and in his second year entered into a Ph.D. program, eventually earning both a Ph.D. and M.D.
“Today, Carlos is a practicing dermatologist making bank!” said Mares.
“Having more options outside of the valley, right, in terms of thinking of Ivy Leagues schools and UCs,” said Miguel Lopez, graduate of the Ivy League Project and occasional speaker for the Saturday Leadership Sessions.
Back in Sanger, the Saturday leadership session continues.
“I remember those morning drives with my mom. She’d come out to every single session with me,” said Lopez. “She’s drive out with me from San Joaquin. We’d get on Manning Avenue and go all the way down Parlier.”
For the past year, Edison High senior Gabriel Murillo has been a part of the Ivy League Project. Next year, this first-generation college student will be attending Stanford University.
“It happened. Just yesterday, it happened so just to go from there to here it’s a big shift and it’s because of this program and my support group that I have,” said Murillo. “I am the first in my family to go away to college and they’re amazed. I’m not just going to college but I’m going to Stanford University. I’m also the first in my family to go so we’re all shocked this is happening and we’re really excited.”
Murillo’s younger brother, Auturo, a freshman at Edison High, is also enrolled in the Ivy League Project.
“I’m excited for him because he’s going to get a lot out of this program because he’s just freshman. I’m looking forward to that,” said Murillo.
The significance of this accomplishment not lost on Murillo.
“As a Latino and as a DREAMer, I’m the oldest in my family and I was always trying to mentor my younger brothers and being able to dream big; being able to dream about Stanford, Harvard, and Brown I feel not only inspired me but inspired others,” said Murillo.
Murillo’s encouragement quickly turned to empowerment when President Trump announced his administration would stop accepting new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program or DACA this September. That decision affects nearly 700 undocumented immigrants currently enrolled in the program, many of them in the Central Valley.
“My parents, when they found out about Trump getting rid of DACA and about the difficulties that DACA students have, we are all a little bit disappointed and a little bit disheartened but for me that was really what pushed me forward knowing that it’s going to be harder; knowing I can do this. It just makes me happier that I got into Stanford,” said Murillo. “I made it. A DREAMer made it. It’s possible. Everyone can achieve this so I’m really excited about that.”
As Murillo’s time with the program comes to a close, 14-year-old Jessica Fernandez is just beginning hers.
“This program has helped connect me to people who will help me achieve success in the future and through this program I believe I will achieve my goal and I just think this program just opens up a lot of doors for people, especially for people who live in the Central Valley ‘cause we don’t get a lot of opportunities everyone else gets,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez, currently a freshman at Sierra Pacific High School in Hanford, plans to attend Harvard and major in political science.
“Most people perceive the Central Valley as migrant workers and their kids when they get out of high school they’re just going to do the same that their parents do. That’s where they’re wrong because some people want to take a path in another way,” said Fernandez. “They want to do something different and I believe this is becoming more aware now because this program is helping kids who want to do more than just work in the fields like their parents.”
Now 25 years after its inception, the Ivy League Project has grown in size and scope. In 2012, the trip expanded from five days to eight. It is also more expensive. Today, students must raise the $2700 price tag in the span of a year through fundraisers. It has also grown its footprint with three projects operating in Tucson, Ariz., El Paso, Texas, and in the Central Valley of Calif.
Mares has plans to expand even more with a Junior Ivy League Project partnering with various school districts in the valley. This effort will begin in January with about 25 scholars ranging from fifth through eighth grade. Mares is currently in works to approve three district-wide Ivy League Projects in the Central Valley including Riverdale, Golden Plains, and Porterville.
After nearly three decades working for the Parlier Unified School District, Mares has retired to work full-time for the Ivy League Project. He says he has no plans of stopping and his mission will continue to work to make the college dreams of his students their reality.