When fourth-year sociology and education major Jaime Carias goes home to South Central Los Angeles, he does not swap stories of college with his friends from high school; he plays with their kids.

“Most of my friends from the block I grew up on … are parents with two or three kids, some are drug dealers, and some are not [alive] anymore… I’m the only student,” Carias said. “I go back; it’s kind of shocking.”

When most of his friends were getting involved with drugs at age 13, Carias said he was listening to his parents’, counselors’, teachers’ and coaches’ advice while being involved in sports and after-school activities. He also participated in sponsored outreach trips to local colleges and universities, at that time appreciating the opportunity to get a free bus ride and miss a day of class.

“It’s so easy to get trapped [in that neighborhood] but so hard to get out,” Carias said. “The few that are able to get out see it so differently. I’m glad I made it out of that trap. You need a college degree for people to listen to you.”

To assist others find the same path that he did, Carias helped organize last Saturday’s outreach program “From the Barrio to Academia,” a daylong conference aimed at empowering high school students and encouraging them to pursue higher education. Carias and other organizers – Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity and Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority – hope to make this an annual event targeting students in Santa Barbara who are not already college-bound.

“These are the kids whose counselors have given up on them, some of their parents have given up on them,” Carias said. “They are always getting yelled at and told they are dumb, that they should go work at McDonald’s. We just wanted them to know that it is possible for them to succeed at the next level. And if we don’t tell them, who will?”

Carias and his fellow organizers arranged for UCSB vans to transport about 50 students between the ages of 16 and 18 from San Marcos, Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High Schools to the university campus for the daylong event, which included a college admissions workshop, a financial aid information session and a question-and-answer segment with a student panel.

“What struck me the most was that most of these students have lived in the Santa Barbara area all their lives, but have never been to UCSB’s campus before,” Carias said.

The conference featured lectures by the Religious Studies Dept. professor Ines Talamantez and sociology graduate students Christopher Bickel and Xuan Santos, three role models Carias said could relate to the attending students because of their shared experience of growing up with similar educational disadvantages.

“The kids we interviewed at the end of the day really liked that the speakers could relate to them,” Carias said. “It motivated them to know that someone like them could succeed and earn a Ph.D., like Dr. Talamantez.”

San Marcos High School guidance counselor Sergio Castellanos and several of his colleagues from each high school also attended the conference. Castellanos said he was impressed by the empowering message organizers gave attendees.

“Maybe – just maybe – it changed the way the kids perceive themselves,” Castellanos said. “And now, little by little, they can take the steps and make the changes they need to in order to go to college.”

Lambda Theta Phi and Lambda Theta Alpha provided the students with a complimentary breakfast, lunch, T-shirts and goodie bags that included free UCSB folders and pencils, in addition to printed information about applying to institutions of higher education. The groups raised money for the event through a combination of fundraising and financial assistance provided by the Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Office of Academic Preparation and Equal Opportunity, Carias said.

However, such UC financial assistance may not be as available next year in light of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts to outreach programs, Carias said.

According to a press release issued by the University of California Office of the President, Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal calls for the removal of $19.3 million from the statewide budget for UC academic preparation programs similar to the conference.

APEO Chicano/Latino Cultural Intern Ismael Huerta said the proposed budget cuts would hinder UCSB’s ability to host events like “From the Barrio to Academia” in the future.

“It’s sad,” said Huerta, a fourth-year Chicano studies and indigenous studies major. “It would limit our ability to reach out to students. The funding was difficult to get, but if it is cut entirely then chances are the conference won’t happen again next year, and that’s really sad.”