23 students graduate from Riverland summer prep class

Published 9:00 am Sunday, August 2, 2015

David Garcia, of Austin, talks about his experience with Be Your Best with Juan Fernando Rodriguez during a ceremony Thursday night at Riverland Community College. — Eric Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

David Garcia, of Austin, talks about his experience with Be Your Best with Juan Fernando Rodriguez during a ceremony Thursday night at Riverland Community College. — Eric Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

AUSTIN — After taking time out of their summers, 23 students are more prepared to start their postsecondary education this fall.

Students from Austin, Owatonna, Albert Lea, Kasson and Northfield graduated from Riverland Community College’s Be Your Best College Prep Academy at the college Thursday evening.

“I actually feel really, really proud, and I feel proud about my classmates as well,” Omar Velazquez, 17, said. “I achieved a really great goal, and I am much better in math as well as writing.”

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Be Your Best, which started in 2007, is a free summer program designed to help students ages 16 to 22 be better prepared for college.

“I’m starting college this fall so I really wanted to get a good experience and get ahead, as far as what it might be like, what I might learn,” Velazquez of Austin said.

He didn’t only improve skills in math and writing, but also learned to make friends easier and how to better network with people around him. He recommended everyone try Be Your Best.

“If they’re being hesitant about joining the program, stop and just go for it,” he said. “Because it’s a really good experience, and if you don’t do it you might regret it.”

Velazquez plans to attend Riverland in Albert Lea for the Automotive Service Technology program.

Students from area high schools and towns are encouraged to participate in Be Your Best. Program leaders receive referrals from high school counselors for some students, while others put in their own application. Students participate in classes specific in writing, reading and math, and career planning. They also attend seminars, workshops and educational field trips.

For Lizette Salazar, 18, of Austin, the program was helpful in several areas.

“I feel good,” she said. “It was a lot of fun; we did tons of stuff. Some parts were challenging and other parts were just a breeze.”

“We had a lot of opportunities,” she added.

Salazar’s older siblings went through the program, as well as a few older friends, who recommended it to her. Salazar plans to attend Winona State University in the fall to study bio-chemistry and pre-veterinary medicine with a minor in music.

“This program really helped with preparing for college,” she said.

Director of Admissions Nel Zellar was excited about this year’s graduating class of 23 students.

“To me this is always one of the highlights of our year, because this really is all about opportunity and access,” Zellar said. “Every year they are remarkable.”

Zellar hopes the students learned things they might not learn otherwise, especially for first generation college students who might not pick up necessary skills at home.

“For these students to give up a big part of their summer to do college prep classes, that takes an incredible amount of maturity and I think a real appreciation and understanding of what higher education can do for the future,” Zellar said.

Be Your Best has served 180 students in its nine years. The program was started through a Minnesota State College and Universities grant, but the funding only lasted one year. After a successful first year, The Hormel Foundation started funding Be Your Best through its APEX Austin program.

Riverland President Adenuga Atewologun thanked the partners for the program — the different public schools and the sponsors.

“Thank you for being here, we appreciate the students of Be Your Best,” he said during his speech. “We appreciate the parents, family and friends as well.”

Atewologun stressed the importance of a postsecondary education, regardless of the field or college.

“This is very important, so I want to encourage you not to stop here,” he told the graduates. “Some of you will be going back to high school to finish, some of you will be coming to Riverland, and some of you will just want to continue to other universities. Whatever your choice, just do it, because getting something after high school and beyond is very important.”