PROVO — Dayan Bernal kept hammering home the same message: If her students set goals and tried hard in school, they wouldn't have to work for minimum wage for the rest of their lives. The key to climbing out of poverty? A college education.
Bernal, a recent BYU graduate who taught a college-prep class at Provo High School as her honors thesis, said giving her 25 at-risk Latino students a reason to do well in high school was her top priority.
"Once I was able to help them change their mindset, that's when I started to actually teach college prep principles," she said.
All the motivational speeches, guest lectures, test preparations and college field trips have paid off: At least 17 of Bernal's 25 students just finished their first year of college.
"I just like listening to them and having them dream and be so positive about life," Bernal told the Deseret News, more than three years after her class. "They have so much on their plate, and they're still going forward. That, for me, is wonderful."
Bernal, who recently graduated in Latin American Studies and philosophy, found her way to college without the help of a mentor or a class.
The Bolivia native moved to the United States during her sophomore year and spent hours on the Internet learning about the ACT, SAT and how to get into college.
"(Immigrant) children tend to bear all the education responsibility on themselves, and they don't receive much support at home because of the language barrier," Bernal said. "That's why I wanted to prepare students, to let them know the options."
Students also quickly learned that Bernal was personally invested in their success, said Darin Eckton, Bernal's thesis adviser and the then-assistant director of the BYU's Multicultural Student Services.
"She gave countless hours to bless the lives of these students — I think they felt that," Eckton said. "She's going to go a long way with her passion and desire to serve others."
When Gary Guanuna first started attending Bernal's class at Provo High, he figured it would be just another chance to hang out with friends.
But when Bernal talked to him about his personal challenges, he said he opened up and began respecting her and the class.
"I always thought about college, but I didn't really have a lot of role models who went to college," Guanuna, now 18, said. "I didn't know what options I had. With Dayan, she was only a few years older, so she was a great example of going to college."
The summer after his sophomore year during Bernal's ACT prep course, his college goal was solidified.
He pauses when he's asked where he'd be without the class.
"I'm not really sure," he says. "I probably would have graduated (from high school), but it's tough to say, because they helped me out a lot to pull my grades up. I might have graduated, and I'd probably be working right now."
Instead, Guanuna just finished his first year at LDS Business College and is preparing for an LDS mission.
After that, he'd like to transfer to BYU and pursue a career in international relations, he said, and become a mentor, like Dayan.
"I want to show the teenagers where I'm at, (and that it's) where (they) could be, too," he said. "Try to be a role model."
Bernal is now preparing for law school, where she wants to focus on education policy and child advocacy.
She and a few BYU students are also working to start a nonprofit organization to continue the type of mentoring she developed for her thesis.
"We need good role models," Bernal said. "Sometimes, when there's not an intervention made, some youths tend to take another path and become a menace to society … because there's no one there to support them."
e-mail: [email protected]