Juntos helps shy eighth-grader transform into historic student body president

Wearing a black mortarboard and gown, Yahir Santillan-Guzman stands on a stage while he delivers his valedictory speech at The Dalles High School graduation in June.

Latino/Hispanic students comprise the largest minority group at The Dalles High School – 37% of the total enrollment. In 2012, Oregon State University Extension’s Open Campus program launched Juntos (“together” in Spanish), which is designed to bring Latino families and educational institutions together to create pathways to higher education. Recognizing the need for Juntos at The Dalles High School, Open Campus established a Juntos program in the Columbia Gorge in 2014.

Ann Harris, Open Campus coordinator for Wasco and Hood River counties, recruited bilingual/bicultural community members to support the AmeriCorps Jesuit Volunteer Corps, including facilitating Juntos workshops. In the fall of 2015, Andrea Flores-Reyna joined Juntos as a facilitator. By the spring of 2016, a new Juntos curriculum was introduced in The Dalles that focused on middle school students and families, with a focus on the transition to high school. In 2017 Flores-Reyna co-facilitated a Juntos workshop at The Dalles Middle School in which three families participated, including the Santillan family. Yahir Santillan-Guzman, his parents Jose and Elida and younger sister participated in the five-week middle school workshop.

The next year, The Dalles High School faculty expressed that Yahir, then a sophomore and now a member of the Juntos Club at the high school, had the potential to be the valedictorian of the class of 2021. He was elected president of the club for the 2020-21 school year, while the faculty started referring to him as a “rising star.” One teacher wrote to Flores-Reyna, now the Juntos coordinator for Wasco and Hood River counties: “Another little affirmation for you and Juntos. I was working with Yahir on his essay (by the way not only is he an AP scholar … he is in line to be valedictorian – our historically first Latino boy to achieve that.) When I asked him how he was motivated and knew to get such great grades – 4.0 all the way with tons of AP classes out the gate in high school, he said that he was in Juntos in middle school and they really stressed that. So such great results!”

Thanks to programs like Juntos, AVID – a program that levels the playing field for minority, rural, low-income, and other students without a college-going tradition in their families – Advanced Placement courses, the ASPIRE Oregon program, and the Migrant Education Program, The Dalles High School on-time graduation rate is 82%. The Oregon average is 80%. The Dalles High School on-time graduation rate for Latino/Hispanic students is 86%.

On June 5, at Sororis Park in The Dalles, Yahir Santillan-Guzman made history. He became the first Latino male student to address his graduating class as a valedictorian. Flores-Reyna guided through his college requirements – “she introduced me to the value of AP,” Yahir told Columbia Community News. Yahir was accepted by 11 of the 13 universities to which he applied, including Harvard University. He chose Harvard and is now attending the prestigious school.