A Welcome Place
Students from a far corner of Southern California find a path to a better future at Chico State
by Joe Wills
“You’d probably like to know why I’m sending you 10 hours away to Chico.” Lynette Wohlmuth, a former Coachella Valley teacher turned community organizer, was addressing a big group of teenagers and their parents. They were on the patio of a popular restaurant in La Quinta, the wealthy desert enclave advertised as the top golf destination in the United States. Most of the students, though, were from a very different part of Coachella Valley—Thermal, about 12 miles away, home to many more farm laborers than golfers.
In two weeks, the students would be starting classes at Chico State. Some were returning students, but most were freshmen, and this Aug. 3 gathering—one of many Ready, Set, Chico! sessions held around the state but the first ever held in Coachella Valley—was to answer any lingering questions the new students and parents might have.
Wohlmuth smiled as she stated the obvious—Coachella Valley and Chico State were an odd match. “There are a lot of Southern California schools closer than Chico State,” she told the group. “But I wouldn’t tell you this is the right choice for you unless I believed it 100 percent.”
The students seemed to believe it, too. “It was unlike any of our other gatherings,” says Polly Crabtree, associate director of Alumni and Parent Relations, who organizes Ready, Set, Chico! “We usually answer a lot of basic questions, but these students and their families were very prepared, very knowledgeable about our campus.” Even though it was 105 degrees and the patio fans were turned off so everyone could hear, no one left early. “After our program, the new and returning students spent a lot of time talking with each other,” says Crabtree. “It was hard to have a formal ending to the event because they were so interested in talking about Chico State.”
Since 2005, 61 Coachella Valley students—almost all of them from low-income households—have enrolled at Chico State. Several hundred others have applied for fall 2013, and the University expects the number of Coachella Valley students on campus to triple in a few years. While Chico State has long excelled at working with underrepresented students, notably through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) started in 1968, it has never attracted so many students from such a far-flung, economically disadvantaged part of the state.
The students face many obstacles heading off to a university 580 miles away. Beyond academically qualifying for the CSU and securing financial aid to cover all their college costs, they have to account for expenses few other students worry about. Wohlmuth, who helps raise funds for Coachella Valley students to attend college, says it’s a “monumental effort” for some just to get to Chico. “One relative pays for the hotel, another covers the gas, another rents a car—it takes the whole family chipping in for it to happen,” she notes.
Every step of the way, the students must justify the cost, and distance from home, that comes with attending Chico State. They are often the first members of their families, and even their communities, to go to college; by the same token, because of their hard work and determination, the students are often the last family member that parents and community members want to see leave. Martha Montez, a Chico State junior from Coachella Valley High, says her mother worries that Chico is “too far from home” and wants to know when her daughter will be coming back to help at home and in the community. A biological sciences major planning to attend medical school, Montez says it will be a lot of work explaining to her mother the additional years of schooling that lie ahead.
They are often the first members of their families, and even their communities, to go to college.
Why do the students bypass closer college options and come to Chico State? It’s a combination of qualities very familiar to alumni and friends of the University: caring about students, and charms of the campus and Chico area. “We take a totally different approach than most schools reaching out to these students,” says Gary McMahon, director of the Chico Student Success Center (CSSC). Instead of different staff recruiting students and then supporting them when they land on campus, he says, “we connect all the dots for them.”
McMahon (in photo above with four Coachella Valley students) and Bertha Alicia Curiel, his associate director, travel to Coachella Valley, talk to students in their high school classrooms, provide them their cell phone numbers, meet their parents, and help them transition into college life. Once the students have arrived on campus, they treat the CSSC— a suite of rooms that includes a computer lab, lounge, and McMahon’s and Curiel’s offices—like home. “They [McMahon and Curiel] notice when you are down or having an off day,” says Gabriela Martinez, a junior pre-law student from Coachella Valley High. “It helps emotionally, knowing they care and understand what we are going through.”
Chico State’s approach would not be successful, however, if the students did not meet others on campus more than willing to help. “As is the case with all of our students, these students benefit from an extensive student support network coupled with a caring faculty that mentors and encourages them,” says Meredith Kelley, vice provost for Enrollment Management. “This is what makes Chico State special, and why students coming to us from as far away as the Coachella Valley feel welcome and supported here.”
Along with a welcoming spirit, the students find a campus and climate that seem a world away from Coachella Valley. “I love winter!” says Brenda Chavez, a double major in theatre and communication. “I can’t wait for the clouds and the rain.” Freshman Oscar Zazueta liked it when his new classmates complained about the 90-degree heat in September. “I tell them where I’m from, 90 degrees is nothing. In fact, I say I’m a little cold, I could use a sweater,” he says, smiling.
Like many other newcomers to Chico, the Coachella Valley students remark about the stately trees and beautiful Big Chico Creek wending its way through campus. California is filled with picturesque spots, but McMahon thinks Chico offers the additional lure of a small-town atmosphere set in an agricultural area. “They see the farms, they see the signs of a close community—those things are familiar to them,” he says.
Coachella Valley might be just another place for Chico State to recruit students were it not for a visit McMahon made in 2008 with President Paul Zingg and then-Provost Sandra Flake. After touring the area and meeting with high school students, McMahon drove them to Duroville, the notorious trailer park near Thermal called a “national symbol of slum housing” by the Los Angeles Times. Boarded-up windows, open sewage, barefoot children, strung-up low-hanging electrical wires, and mounds of trash were just outside the windows of their rental car. The incongruity of a shiny new school bus on an adjacent street just accentuated the squalor. Inside the car, McMahon recalled, no one said a word.
“We had seen the manicured lawns and mansions in Palm Desert and Palm Springs,” he says. “To come from that to somewhere with third-world living conditions—the game changed that day. It became a vocation, not an occupation.”
Back on campus, Zingg, Flake, and McMahon shared what they had experienced: Not just the appalling sites of Duroville but how appreciative the students were, how much they wanted to beat the odds against them and go to college. Coachella Valley became an emotional touchstone for why the University should devote resources to helping underrepresented students.
In their visits to the area, however, McMahon and Curiel made it clear they were advocates for college, not just Chico State. “If a student talks about going to another school, I say ‘Excellent!’ There’s no pressure about going to Chico State,” says Curiel. “I talk about the CSU first and then Chico, and add ‘If Chico is right for you.’ What’s important is students orienting to the idea of going to college.”
McMahon and Curiel also know the Coachella Valley students carry with them the hopes of a community beset with poor wages and substandard housing. They show due respect to the parents in their meetings with students, where Curiel takes all the time that’s needed speaking to parents in Spanish. “It’s a family decision, it’s not just a student making a choice,” she says. “Mom or Dad will look me in the eye and say, ‘She can go [to Chico State], but I’ll hold you accountable.’ ”
Wohlmuth has been working with different programs for the past eight years to improve the lives of Coachella Valley residents, and she sees why Chico State has experienced success in enrolling students. “Chico State is trying to create great human beings. It sounds corny, but it’s true,” she says. “They care about people, they want to make others’ lives better through service—it’s the right thing to do. I’m a mom, and I want my child to go to a school like that.”
(BA, Recreation Administration, ’82), a former firefighter/EMT, is an insurance agent with New York Life in San Diego.
(BA, Journalism, ’01) is a partner at FSB Core Strategies, a public relations firm in Sacramento.
(MA, Kinesiology, ’06) is the head athletic trainer at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.