"Before I didn't even know what college was," said Vanessa Ruiz. "When I was in high school, I was like, 'OK, what's college.'"
Like many members of what is now America's largest ethnic minority, Ruiz is the first in her family to attend college. Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico and now run a small neighborhood grocery, barely finished grade school. For this reason, Ruiz says, "Something to other people is more like, 'Oh, she's just going to college,' for us, it was like the biggest deal in the world."
At first, Ruiz's family opposed the idea of her attending college: "The fact that I wanted to completely detach myself from this environment - it kinda frustrated them in the beginning," she said.
Ruiz and her parents argued over the subject and Ruiz found herself walking a cultural tightrope, torn between her desire to some day become a teacher and the demands of Mexican tradition, in which women are expected to live at home until marriage.
Ruiz might never have become interested in higher education, were it not for Mount St. Mary's College, a small private school once run entirely by nuns and attended primarily by middle-class white women. Mount St. Mary's original campus is at the top of a hill in the exclusive Brentwood section of Los Angeles, a world away from Ruiz's family store.
Jackie Doud, president of Mount St. Mary's, "believe[s] that every capable and serious student, regardless of her academic or social background, should have the opportunity to pursue a college education."
Doud, herself a former nun, had helped guide the changes at Mount St. Mary's. The school's mission, she says, has always been to offer education to those denied it: first, it allowed women the opportunity to learn, then African American women.
Now, with a second campus in the heart of Los Angeles, Mount St. Mary's College has shifted its focus to the changing population of the city it serves. According to Doud, approximately half the college's student body is made up of Latina women, which, she says, "very much mirrors Los Angeles."
"Once I visited the campus I saw something that made me very happy, which was the 'la mezcla' that we talk about here all the time- the mix of people," says Marco Villatoro, Mount Saint Mary's creative writing chairman.
Villatoro encourages his students to broaden their horizons: "We've been talking lately in my classes, we've been using this adage of 'Que simbre la semilla de amicion en su corazon'(Let yourself sow the seed of ambition in your heart)," says Villatoro, "because I think many of us have been raised with the notion that ambition is a bad thing."
The issue Villatoto addresses is one addressed in the film "Real Women Have Curves," in which a young, California Latina is accepted at a prestigious eastern college. The film includes a scene in which the girl's father says, "Of course, we want Anna to get educated, but we need her to work now. She can go to college later."
Of course, there is also the stereotype of the spicy Latin woman, for whom beauty is more important than brains when it comes to attracting a husband. Villatoro believes these stereotypes are changing, but maintains "there's a lot of tension for the student. If anything, it doesn't break them; it makes them stronger."
According to Alejandra Rocio, a Mount St. Mary's student, the school "really encourages women to get out there and show their talents and skills and let the world know that we are capable of doing a lot of things."
And indeed, says Ruiz, women at Mount St. Mary's rely heavily on one another since so many are educational pioneers in their families. "But," she says, "in seeing other [Latina] women, it's just empowering. Because you draw away from the stereotype of, Okay, I have to be married by this time or I have to be a housewife. Or just the traditional stereotypes you've heard of."
To understand the academic hurdles that Latinos, both male and female, face, consider these facts: Though they are currently the nation's largest minority population, they are also the least educated. They trail all other groups in college degrees while leading the country in high school dropouts.
At Los Angeles's Woodrow Wilson High School, for example, 90 percent of the student body is Latino and 80 percent of these students come from families with incomes so low that they are entitled to free or reduced-price school lunches. The dropout rate has been as high as 50 percent.
Roxanna Silva is a Mount St. Mary's student and the college's ambassador to Wilson High School, which she herself attended. Her mission is not to sell Mount St. Mary's, but rather to sell the idea that a college education is part of the American dream.
Many Wilson High School students, says Silva, "think they can't afford [college] because 'my parents don't make that much money.' So my goal here is just to get them to think that 'I can go away and I'll be OK. I can afford it.'"
In fact, 90 percent of the women at Mount Saint Mary's receive some form of financial aid. Half of them receive more than $14,000. President Doud doesn't want the school's pricey private-school tuition - $18,000 a year - to be a deterrent to women whose parents are sometime maids and field workers.
"It's a very costly mission that we've chosen to embrace," admits Doud, "and its also something unglamorous to take students that might be somewhat under-prepared."
Still, Doud and the rest of Mount St. Mary's faculty believe the financial and image sacrifices to be more than worthwhile, because it affords them the opportunity to "draw out from [students] what their true potential is."