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Hanford students, from left, Emily Castrillo, Aileen Garcia, Dulce Diaz-Avila and Irene Botello, have participated in the Ivy League Project which helps students apply to the nation's most prestigious colleges.

HANFORD — Having just started their freshmen year, a group of Hanford students are already preparing for college.

Four Hanford freshmen are taking part in the Ivy League Project, a program with the goal of encouraging economically disadvantaged students to apply to the most prestigious universities in the United States like Harvard, Yale and Brown.

While the program used to work with just sophomores and juniors, it has now extended to freshmen as well. The freshmen students are Aileen Garcia and Irene Botello from Sierra Pacific High School, Emily Castillo of Hanford High and Dulce Diaz-Avila of Hanford West. The four all attended Jefferson Charter Academy, a kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school, previously.

Martin Mares, founder of the Ivy League Project and former superintendent of Parlier Unified School District, said students must work hard to participate in the program. There are weekly, weekend meetings where students learn how to present themselves professionally and learn other skills like public speaking.

“You have to want it,” Mares said. “A lot of people want to do the easy road. It’s tough to take all the hard courses but it’s exciting when we have kids who want to make a difference.”

Mares started the project in 1992 with the idea of just helping some Parlier students apply to Ivy League schools.

No students were accepted until the third year of the program. Since then 1,500 students in the program have been accepted into colleges, including 260 last year.

The program has expanded to other parts of California as well as Arizona and Texas.

Early on, Mares held meetings to just raise money for trips for students to visit east coast schools. Those turned into leadership meetings, where the students learned other skills. At meetings now, students dress professionally and have their own business cards.

The group of Hanford students found out about the program when Aileen learned about it from a friend.

She told her middle school teacher Stacie Johnson about it, and Johnson contacted Mares and invited him to speak to her class. 

“I challenged the kids to apply,” Mares said. “I’m really excited to have that group from Hanford taking part in it.”

Aileen said applying for the program was rigorous. Students had to fill out an application, write four different essays of 750 words each, have teacher recommendations and have a grade point average of at least 3.75.

“It’s been so helpful,” Aileen said. “I’ve been a shy person my whole life. It’s helped me ….”

Aileen would be the first in her family to attend college. She hopes to attend Harvard and eventually be a pediatrician.

“As a freshman, you have to know how to prepare when the time comes for college,” Aileen said.

The group is now raising money to visit colleges on the East Coast in the spring. The group will also visit the Holocaust museum, the U.S. Capital Building and the Statue of Liberty.

The group is selling See’s Candy and tamales and will hold a community yard sale.

Johnson said the program is beneficial to her former students. 

“It really gets the kids to see what it’s like to be a college student,” Johnson said. “They’re great kids. They’re really academically talented and have tremendous drive. You can tell they want to go to college and to see that motivation is exceptional.”

The reporter can be reached at 583-2431 or Follow him on twitter @jsbutters.

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