They were overwhelmed by the green and lush landscapes, surprised by the divergent political and religious beliefs, and challenged by the competitive nature of a top university education.
Those are some of the experiences for three San Fernando High School seniors who completed a 10-day Princeton University Summer Journalism program.
“I was surprised how competitive it seems over there (among) all the students. It’s a little intimidating. It’s a challenging experience,” said Elia Morelos, who along with fellow students Aracely Chavez and Miriam Garcia, attended the program at the university, getting a closeup view of an Ivy League education and the world of journalism.
“You can’t put in half an effort on what you do out there,” Morelos added.
All three are Magnet students and involved in the school newspaper. They were accepted after submitting articles, and were among dozens of other high school students attending from across the country.
The all-expense paid trip gave them an opportunity to visit the East Coast for the first time — including first ever airplane travel for Chavez and Garcia — and the chance to work closely with reporters and editors from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Yorker.
Their eyes and minds were first opened by being in a different part of the country.
“Everything here is so much greener,” said Morelos, 16, who lives in Pacoima, and was more used to the brown of the drought-stricken San Fernando Valley. “I’m not used to seeing so much trees and nature,” said Garcia, 16, a San Fernando resident.
“It was breathtaking. Back home everything is all dried up. Over here there’s trees everywhere,” added Chavez, 17, from Pacoima.
The small-town atmosphere of a college city — Princeton’s population is slightly more than 28,500 inhabitants — also gave the Californians a taste of university living, so much so that Morales said visiting New York city “felt like home.”
Along the way, they learned journalism basics of how to write and edit stories, and photography.
“I never considered how much effort goes into being a journalist. You have to stay up on it 24/7,” Morelos said.
That was revealed to Garcia when the students visited New York. She had to interview taxi drivers and other motorists for an article she was writing on the law prohibiting “idling” for more than three minutes, as a measure to cut back on pollution.
“We conducted eight interviews. Some [people] were very opinionated and some were rude; they just rolled up their windows,” said Garcia of approaching drivers in the fast-paced New York city streets.
The girls were joined with students of different racial, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds from all over the country. The students were assigned four to a dorm and had to collaborate on assignments, working in groups and sharing their input into articles.
The mixing and working with other students “opened my eyes to a different world,” noted Morales, who collaborated with people whose views leaned more toward Republican than Democrat.
Garcia said that despite differences, she found that different people often share “the same values even though they grew up very different from me.”
Garcia also had to dispel some erroneous beliefs from those who’ve never been to Los Angeles.
“I told them I don’t live in Hollywood, I don’t go to the beach everyday and I don’t see celebrities,” she said, dispelling some of common misconceptions people had.
“It was just different. There were a lot of African Americans and Asians, but it was easier to work with them because we were all pretty empathetic with each other and we worked very smoothly,” said Chavez, adding she would “encourage her classmates” to pursue similar opportunities.
“We’re going to encourage them to go out of the state. We got to experience things that would have cost thousands of dollars,” she said.
For Chavez, one of the highlights was attending the Jets preseason game at Met Life Stadium, and being in the press box. “I enjoyed it a lot and I felt very important.”
Chavez returned to the Valley convinced that “Princeton is a possibility” to attend for college. And she is more convinced that “I want to pursue journalism.”
Violet Mardirosian, Magnet coordinator at San Fernando High School, said the experiences shared by the three students gave them valuable insight into getting a college education as they start their last year here.
The fact that they were chosen from among dozens of applicants showed that there are talented students locally who defy stereotypes and expectations, Mardirosian said.
“It’s a great accomplishment. It puts our school on the map,” Mardirosian said. “Despite where we’re located and what people may think, it shows that we have students capable, intelligent and willing to work hard to achieve their goals.”