Hearts broken, flags at half staff in Humboldt after crash

Published: Saturday, Apr. 12, 2014 - 5:51 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 13, 2014 - 11:53 am

ARCATA - The headline of the local newspaper here said everything in two words: Dreams Shattered.

Saturday at Spring Preview is normally a day filled with the mundane, high school seniors taking the steps to start a college career: applying for a roof overhead and the money to pay for classes and touring the dorms they’ll call home.

But for these students, many working-class Latino students from the greater Los Angeles area and the first in their families to attend college, it’s also the beginning of a journey into college life.

It is a journey that ended so tragically for so many two days ago on a stretch of rural interstate now has many here grasping to understand.

“My kids recognize they are blessed,” said Natalie Hernandez, 27, of Huntington Park, on Friday. Hernandez, a youth counselor and Humboldt alum brought her youth group from Santa Monica to the campus. “We drove the same roads they drove, had the same conversations and we made it and they didn’t,” she said. “It’s been really hard on them.”

It’s been hard on Hernandez, too. She lost two friends on the ill-fated bus.

Humboldt community members also are hurting. Flags flew at half-staff on a day when the sun scarcely broke through the overcast.

University officials offered the campus’ “deepest condolences” to those connected to Thursday’s crash. The university also established funds to aid those affected.

“This has been an unbelievably difficult time for so many people and there are difficult days ahead,” the university statement read. “Our thoughts are with you.”

The students on the affected bus were participants in Humboldt’s Preview Plus, a program started in 1989 that seeks to increase diversity on the campus. Roughly half the participants each year commit to the college.

Participants typically tour the campus with Humboldt students and alumni, sit in on classes and meet faculty during the two-day event.

This year, nearly 40 high schools were represented from the Bay area, the Central Valley, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. About 500 high school students took the marathon trip to this forest campus on the Redwood Coast.

The diversity campaign has made a difference. Now a quarter of campus students are Hispanic or Latino. Last October, Humboldt was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-serving institution, distinguishing college campuses with at least 25 percent Hispanic students.

“We’re looking more like the face of California,” Peg Blake, a university Vice President, said Friday. “We like knowing that a student maybe is the first one in their family to graduate from college. That’s why it's important to us and why our hearts are broken.”

Isaiah Hernandez traveled with parents Suzanne and Peter from Fullerton. The Fullerton High School senior learned about Humboldt and its Preview Plus program from an admissions counselor who visited his class.

Other campuses are on the prospect’s list including Chico State and Cal Poly Pomona, but Hernandez, who plans to study Kinesiology, said the program and this week’s campus tour made his college choice an easier one.

Hernandez, a thoughtful 17-year-old, talked about the differences - miles and worlds apart - between the north coast campus and his native Orange County. It’s a difference his mother calls “Solitude, not confinement.”

“It's more peaceful than city life - sometimes you need to get away and be peaceful. Being up here, you feel more obligated to focus on school work than city lights,” he said Saturday. After talking with Humboldt students, “I’ve got an idea of how I’ll feel. Surprises are always good, but preparing and getting excited for them is kind of nice.”

Youth counselor Natalie Hernandez couldn’t wait for Spring Preview. As a Sociology student here, she opened her dorm to high schoolers trading Southland concrete for the wooded North Coast and the chance to attend Humboldt State University.

She was one herself, a girl from Huntington Park, and a product of Preview Plus who found herself on the coastline campus.

“Spring Preview was a big part of it being special. Coming from Huntington Park, it opened me to a whole new world outside of LA,” the 2011 graduate said Friday. “It showed the family connection you were going to have at Humboldt.”

Now, as a youth counselor at Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica, Hernandez wanted the same for her kids. She led a group of 15 youths Thursday on the long drive north to her alma mater.

She wanted them to see what she first saw here.

“It’s always good to have that sense of mentorship so they can see students who look like them doing what they could be doing in a few years.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

Read more articles by Darrell Smith

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