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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

From left to right front row: Mira Monte High School Juniors Lakota De Leon, Jasmene Del Aguila, Gloria Duran, Edward Garcia. Back row: Emanuel Vargas, Veronica Sanchez, Maricruz Moreno, Esperanza Gutierrez and Mira Monte Counselor Jose Garza. The students, along with Francisco Mosqueda, not pictured, are part of the Ivy League Project that introduces them to Ivy League life, how to be leaders, and how to apply and be admitted. They also get to visit several of the campuses.

There are students who achieve great things in high school, but never think they could actually go to an Ivy League university.

"Students sometimes just don't know," said Jose Garza, Mira Monte High counselor. "You have to be aware of the resources that are out there. I want these kids to go somewhere and be something."

Garza, a UC Berkeley and Harvard University graduate, has brought a 20-year program, dubbed the Ivy League Project, to Bakersfield for the first time. It's aimed at encouraging economically disadvantaged students to apply to the most prestigious universities in America.

And Mira Monte -- the Kern High School District campus with the highest number of economically disadvantaged students -- is host to nine students in the program, the most ever for a campus, founder Martin Mares said.

His program selects the most talented and promising 10th- and 11th-grade students in the Central Valley, and has expanded to two other states. Students attend seminars in Tulare where they learn networking and leadership skills. And they later visit top universities on the east coast like MIT, Harvard, Yale and Brown, among others.

There they learn about the colleges and programs, meet alumni and walk through the admissions process.

"This gives them the opportunity to learn about the world, and be effective leaders," Mares said.

And the Mira Monte group is learning to be just that, if they're not there already, Garza said. Neither of the students, all juniors, has below a 4.0 GPA or involved in fewer than five clubs, sports or other extracurricular activities.

They aim to study engineering, biochemical engineering, philosophy and medicine.

Among them is Esperanza Gutierrez, who created the "OORAH!" club for students who have siblings, parents or other relatives in the military. Another is Edward Garcia, a football player and the only junior taking Advanced Placement calculus at the school.

Still another, Emanuel Vargas, founded the "Lions Got Dream" club, which helps undocumented high school students get a higher education. And he's dedicated: last school year, Vargas, who was without a ride, walked three miles to school to make it to zero period at 7:30 a.m., then he walked home after school.

Each said they never realized attending an Ivy League school was an option until Garza introduced them to the program.

"I never considered Ivy League. They seemed like out-of-reach schools," Garcia said. "I expected to stay in Bakersfield. Now I want to explore the world."

Since 1992, 800 students have participated in Ivy League Project and nearly 150 of them have been admitted to Ivy League universities, Mares said. The rest attended other top-notch universities, Mares said.

Vivian Velasco Paz, who took part in the project during its fifth year, is one of the students who reached the Ivy League. Like the Mira Monte nine, she too never pictured herself making it from her graduating class of 50 to a top college until the project came along.

"With the Ivy League Project, I expanded my horizons," the Brown University graduate said. "I had never even heard of Brown. I never would have applied to it. I didn't believe in myself before the program."

Velasco Paz, like others in the project, came from humble beginnings (her father was a farm worker). She is now an assistant attorney general in Illinois.

The program typically takes one to two students from participating high schools. In Bakersfield, one student from Centennial High has also been accepted.

Nine in one school, however, is unheard of, said Mares, who interviews applicants and selects them.

"The Mira Monte group has exceeded all expectations," Mares, an assistant superintendent, said. "It's rare that I see such a very talented group."

The KHSD board on Monday approved the group's out-of-town trips during spring break in April. They must raise $2,200 each, and have been selling cotton candy and candied apples from 7 a..m. to 11 p.m. when the campus hosts football games, for example. They are also sending sponsorship letters to local business owners.

They aim to succeed, they said, to show the public that students from Mira Monte High -- one of the newest but lowest achieving campuses in the KHSD -- can make it, too. And that way, they said, future classes will have a path to follow.

If you would like to donate to Mira Monte's Ivy League Project, call the school at 366-1800.