Students reach out through La Escuelita

As part of a class, University students help tutor college-hopefuls.

University first-year student Marina Lillehei and senior Natasha Villanueva put together a photography project Wednesday for their Chicano studies class to bring photography to the hands of high school students at La Escuelita.

Ashley Goetz

University first-year student Marina Lillehei and senior Natasha Villanueva put together a photography project Wednesday for their Chicano studies class to bring photography to the hands of high school students at La Escuelita.

University of Minnesota students Natasha Villanueva and Marina Lillehei sat alone at a cafeteria table in El Colegio Charter School âÄî a Spanish and English speaking school in south Minneapolis âÄî as students trickled into the room. As part of a service learning course in the UniversityâÄôs Chicano studies department, Villanueva, a professional strategic communications senior, and Lillehei, an undecided first-year, volunteer as tutors for a few hours each week in the after-school program called La Escuelita. Besides logging 42 service hours, the pair has to complete a social action project that helps Latino youth. They decided to begin a photography project to encourage students to share their hobbies, neighborhoods and sources of inspiration as a visual story. They hope the projects will be finished in time to be displayed during the International Day of Children celebration on April 26. Villanueva said the importance of this project lies in its ability to give the students a voice and allow them to share their lives with people outside their community. Blanca Raniolo, program director , said La Escuelita is a voluntary program for youth ages 12 to 18 that takes place in the same building as El Colegio. Operating four days a week, about 60 to 65 kids attend; about 98 percent of attendees are Latino. According to Raniolo, volunteers are an integral part of the program. Because tutors work with the students on a personal basis, they can act as mentors. Lillehei and Villanueva enjoy working with the kids and believe their status as college students allows them to share their experiences with high-schoolers who might be thinking about college. Jose Lepez, 18, and Nadia Barrientos, 17, were two of the students invited to do the project. Both high-school students take their homework to La Escuelita almost every day. After receiving a camera from Lillehei, Lepez and Barrientos started brainstorming ideas for their projects. Lepez said he gets a lot of help from Lillehei and will gladly do this project for her. Founded in 1991 , La Escuelita focuses on enriching studentsâÄô lives by helping them with schoolwork and providing them with a safe place to go, Raniolo said. More than 8 percent of Minneapolis residents speak Spanish in their home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2005-2007 American Community Survey. La Escuelita attempts to bridge the gap between Latino immigrant families âÄî about 90 percent of the programâÄôs attendees âÄî and the public school system by helping parents find and understand information pertinent to their childrenâÄôs education. Raniolo said the organization has forged relationships with different colleges and businesses, which high school students tour to see the benefits of getting an education firsthand. La Escuelita provides college and scholarship information for the students and hopes to instill value in learning. For Lepez, college is a matter of when. The high school senior said heâÄôll go when he can afford it. Villanueva and Lillehei take their roles in this process very seriously. They believe the students they interact with have great potential and could contribute a lot to the community. They need to realize âÄúthose thoughts have value and can contribute to other things and other peopleâÄôs lives,âÄù Lillehei said. The pair said they hope the photo project will prove just that to both the students and their communities.