Just married and bound for success: Rites of Passage grads look ahead

Carmen and Justin MeyersEUGENE, OR - Carmen and Justin Meyers are newlyweds. Both graduated from the African American Rites of Passage program for middle school and high school youth at Lane Community College, in different years. In 2009, each enrolled at Lane and mentored younger students in Rites of Passage. They fell in love and the rest is history—in the making.

"They're our first marriage," says Greg Evans, with a fatherly smile. Evans founded Rites of Passage 16 years ago. The program serves African American, Asian American, Native American, and Chicano/Latino youth in the college district. It is a five-week immersion program focused on cultural history, literature, folklore, and traditions to promote positive self-image and self-esteem and inspire students to go on to college.

Rites of Passage offered a safe introduction to college, say Carmen and Justin. He is 20 and she will be 21 this month. Both are focused and confident, undeterred by the shyness and missteps of youth.

Carmen's former stepmother, who used to work at Lane, enrolled her after learning about Rites of Passage from Evans. It was Carmen's first time on a college campus.

A basketball player at South Eugene High, "there were a few colleges who were looking at me to go out of state that was really frightening," Carmen says. Her family was supportive, but "I'm the only one in my family to go to college and they didn't really know anything. They were my cheerleaders from the side but they didn't really know what to expect."

Lane coaches also approached Carmen. "I liked the campus and it was near home. It's a lot cheaper as well." She enrolled and joined the Titans and became a star player. She took a break last year and tried some classes at the University of Oregon, but she is coming back to Lane this fall and will play for the Titans again. She will pursue the Health Records Technology degree at Lane and then return to her pursuit of a teaching degree.

"We're extremely excited to have Carmen back," says Greg Sheley, head women's basketball coach. "We will have a young team next year and Carmen's experience will be perfect. She's a no-nonsense player and she'll be a great role model, besides being a great athlete herself."

Justin's path to college was different. "I made some bad decisions as a young guy," he says, which landed him in the juvenile corrections system. As a result, he did not complete high school, but he did get a GED. His mother heard about Rites of Passage at a presentation Evans gave at Willamette High, where Justin's twin brother (not identical) was enrolled. She told Justin about it.

"My mom thought that it would be a good opportunity to start something positive," he says. "I thought, what else do I have to do with my time, so I might as well go." He was 16. As with Carmen, it was his first time on a college campus.

He credits Evans for getting him to continue his education. "He talked to me and said college was a good thing to do, that it would be beneficial. He said, you need something more than a GED. He helped me with all the paperwork and pretty much talked me into coming here. He was kind of an inspiration."

It was quite a leap. "I pretty much went from middle school into college," he says.

Now Justin and Carmen are moving full speed ahead, hand in hand.

Carmen is studying math and Spanish and wants to teach. "I have a heart for kids. What better way than to get influence them than to be their educator? I know some of the most influential people in my life were teachers." She's thinking of applying for the Teach for America program, a sort of Peace Corps for teachers.

Justin is studying psychology and also wants to work with kids, perhaps as a counselor in the juvenile justice system.

They plan to start out in someplace warm and sunny, probably Southern California. That's where Carmen grew up until moving to Eugene with her family at age 10. Justin has family in Southern California too. Then they'll return to Oregon because they love the outdoors, clean air, and fresh water. "Everyone always comes back," says Justin.

Recently they drove to LA together. "Just before you get to the Grapevine," Carmen says of a famous stretch of Interstate 5, "there's a little pipe that comes off of this hill and there's water draining through the pipe and it goes into this little cement channel. That's actually the start of the LA River." She pointed this out to Justin. "I was so surprised," he says. "I said to her, what, a pipe? This big?" He makes a circle with his hands. "That's not a river! There's no fish in there!" Justin is a Eugene native. To him, a river means the McKenzie, or the Willamette.

Meanwhile, they'll recommend Lane to anyone interested in college. "This is a small campus, it's like a community," says Justin. "It's like a family, it's more available. Teachers are one on one with you. That's a big help."

"It's kind of the same feeling as high school for me," says Carmen, "where teachers know you by name. That was a big help for me, especially since I had a lot of anxiety for going to college."

They have some tips for prospective students. "Stay with a schedule," says Justin. "If you're time isn't plotted out you're going to wind up in a mess." He writes everything down, keeps it on his phone.

Carmen agrees. "Time management is the biggest thing, and not being afraid to ask for help. Be persistent."

Published by Marketing and Public Relations May 2011.