When a hereditary illness took away Coco Zarate’s eyesight while attending Sierra College, it could have also dashed his dreams of finishing college. But Zarate vividly recalls Sierra College librarian Maria Von Der Ahe reading assignments and textbooks to him, allowing him to become the first in his family to graduate college despite his health challenges.

Today, Zarate has recovered his eyesight, graduated from Chico State University, and works as an advocate for children who have experienced domestic violence at the Tahoe SAFE Alliance in Truckee. He is also one of a growing number of Truckee/Tahoe Latino students who have started their college careers at Sierra College and gone on to educational success, often becoming the first members of their families to hold college diplomas. (See Feel Good story, p. 46, to read about Sierra Nevada College and Lake Tahoe Community College’s new partnership to make four-year degrees more accessible.)

Latino student enrollment at Sierra College has more than doubled in the last decade, from 8.5 percent in 2008 to 28.5 percent in 2018, said Kim Bateman, dean of the Truckee campus of Sierra College. And those students typically go on to finish four-year degrees, she adds. Last year, 37 of the 38 Sierra College graduates transferred to four-year colleges.


What is happening at Sierra College is part of a larger national trend. Latino students, many of them first-generation immigrants, are attending college like never before, determined to use education as a stepping stone to better careers. A Pew Research Center study published in 2013 found than seven out of every 10 Latino high school graduates attended college — a rate higher than white high school graduates. The study credited “the importance that Latino families place on a college education” for the increased college participation rate.

But within that national trend, Sierra College’s Truckee-Tahoe campus holds a special place, say the Latino students who have started their college careers or earned associates degrees at the school.

“It is not like a regular college that just treats you like an ID number,” said Zarate. “Sierra College gives you one-on-one interaction with teachers and real relationships.”

Zarate and others say the college experience was unfamiliar to them, but the encouragement and support from Sierra College staff and family members made the challenge less daunting.

“College was a brand new thing for my family,” said Zarate. “My parents only went through elementary school … They didn’t want to see me going through the same struggles that they went through.”

José Yanez said the affordability and flexibility he found at the school was critical for him in gaining his accounting degree through after-work night classes — achieving a dream he has had since arriving in the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico at 12 years old without his immediate family.

Yanez said that without a college in his hometown, higher education might not have been a viable option. “With a full-time job and having to drive an hour or an hour and a half away, it would have been hard to continue with my education,” Yanez said.

Bateman credits a few efforts for the local increase in Latino enrollment. The connection between the Truckee and North Tahoe high schools has become tighter. Students can earn college and high school credits simultaneously through the college’s academic enrichment program. The college has also focused on removing barriers to college education. It offers tuition-free college for full-time students for a full academic year, and many online course materials eliminate the need to buy textbooks.

Those offerings helped Zuleima Ramirez reimagine her educational opportunities and become the first person in her family in the last three generations to graduate from college.

“It was a situation where we thought college was not affordable,” said Ramirez of her perception of higher education before learning about Sierra College’s programs.

After enrolling, Ramirez found the flexibility to earn her criminal justice degree (she also holds a nursing degree and EMT certification). Much of her criminal justice education was earned taking night classes while working full-time, with her two kids at home with her husband. She credits Sierra College counselor Cindy Flores for encouraging her, supporting her, and helping her reach the finish line.

“Even when life happened — two kids and marriage — she was always there,” said Ramirez.

All three students, former and current, have no intention of ending an educational journey that has already taken them so far. Zarate is exploring opportunities to earn his master’s degree. Ramirez plans to enter the police academy and become a bilingual and bicultural law enforcement officer in her hometown of Kings Beach. Yanez said one of the things that has driven him in his pursuit of higher education is something his dad told him many years ago.

“My dad said that the only thing that a person cannot take away from you is your education, and I have carried that for a while,” Yanez said.


  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

    Connect with David

    M-Tu, Th-Fr 9:30am - 6pm
    10317 Riverside Dr
    Truckee, CA 96161

Previous articleThe Old Timers’ Picnic
Next articleTackling Housing Crisis via Propositions, Who’s Filed for Local Seats