- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

He could be pocketing a cool million bucks annually even in today’s commercial real estate market, J. Fernando Barrueta says, but he chooses to raise eight times that much helping Hispanic high school students acquire a better future.

As the chief executive officer of the Hispanic College Fund (HFC) for almost 15 years, Mr. Barrueta, 66, of McLean, couldn’t be happier testifying in Congress on behalf of immigrant students or convincing a timid Latino teen of a higher pursuit.

“I don’t do this for money. Even in real estate, I wasn’t money-motivated,” says the buoyant Mr. Barrueta, known to most as Fern.

Maybe not for himself, but certainly he works to earn enough cash to put his four children through college and to shake the money trees for countless parents whose children would not get a shot at higher education without his commitment.

“Now I sell a product that actually benefits individuals, that benefits the national economy and benefits a community that needs to expand from a professional point of view,” he says. “It is a net plus for everybody, especially the student and the student’s family.”

Mr. Barrueta is so motivated because he understands from his own experience how hard it is for Hispanic students, who often are the first in their families even to grasp the concept of going to college. Most don’t know that financial aid is available, let alone the rigors of matriculating through four years of academia.

“It’s astounding how many students come to our summer youth summit who do not know about [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. They have no guidance and no legacy,” he says.

“Their parents are not hanging around a country club talking about whose son or daughter went to Harvard or Yale,” Mr. Barrueta says. “These are the children of migrant workers and people working in office buildings. They are working for a living very, very hard.”

Most high schools do not have enough guidance counselors to go around, Mr. Barrueta points out, and a lot of Hispanic students “are too shy to force themselves into the mix, so they walk out [of school] and their lives are in jeopardy.”

One of Mr. Barrueta’s happiest moments was helping a soccer player - soccer is another of his passions - secure the resources to send the man’s daughter to college. Hispanic parents “have no idea to how to help their kids because they think, ‘Who would help my kids?’ - but there is help,” he says.

To look at the prosperous man he is today, you’d never know that this son of Mexican immigrants arrived in the nation’s capital from El Paso, Texas, in 1961 with just $300 and a scholarship to Georgetown University. Mr. Barrueta lost the funding his first semester because of poor grades, in part because he had been placed in advanced courses.

“Even though I was the valedictorian of my high school, I was unprepared for a place like Georgetown; I was lost,” Mr. Barrueta says.

Yet he persevered and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Georgetown in 1965. He did so, however, by working more than 30 hours a week at the Georgetown Coffee House to repay tuition loans advanced by owner Leonard Wnukowski.

By the time he entered medical school, Mr. Barrueta was a husband and father, and it did not go well. He returned to retail sales, selling office machines and “really good coffee and tea” before entering the commercial real estate business. By the time he sold his company, Barrueta and Associates, in 1996, it had earned the distinction of being the largest Hispanic firm of its kind in the country, with 40 brokers working in office, retail and industrial leasing; investment sales; commercial mortgage financing; and management.

Even so, Mr. Barrueta’s passion had turned elsewhere - to charity, more specifically to a small nonprofit forwhich he leased free space in one of his buildings, the fledgling HFC.

“Over time, it was much more fun to do volunteer work for the college fund than to sell commercial real estate,” he says.

“A friend told me that when I talked about commercial real estate I seemed down, but when I talked about volunteering, I was upbeat,” Mr. Barrueta says. The same friend, who introduced him to the nonprofit sector, offered him the job to become HCF’s chief operating officer when it opened.

Mr. Barrueta, who had survived prostate cancer, says he decided to take the position because he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. Among his many honors, he was awarded a Washingtonian of the Year award in 2003 by Washingtonian magazine.

“I thought I’d miss real estate but I didn’t,” he says.

At the top of Mr. Barrueta’s mind is the upcoming annual summer Hispanic Youth Symposium, which HCF sponsors in several cities, including Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and the Washington metropolitan area. The students, many of whom qualify for free school lunches, spend four days learning everything about college life, from filling out applications and financial aid forms to how to network once they are accepted and enrolled in classes.

“They come out so fired up, I can’t tell you how that feels; it’s so heartwarming,” Mr. Barrueta says.

George Mason University in Fairfax will be the host campus for the Washington region’s HFC youth symposium in July.

The national nonprofit’s mission is “developing the next generation of Hispanic professionals. If we get them early enough, we can reverse the slide they are on to perdition,” Mr. Barrueta says.

Mr. Barrueta proudly boasts that 75 percent of the students who receive HFC scholarships obtain their degrees. The organization attempts to award students enough money so they don’t have to work and will have time to engage in extracurricular activities, which Mr. Barrueta says is important when students are seeking employment. Since its inception, HFC has awarded more than $9 million dollars to deserving Hispanic students, and the fundraising continues to grow each year, he says.

One thing that troubles Mr. Barrueta is HFC’s inability to help Hispanic students who have lived in the United States almost all their lives but are undocumented.

“At least 75,000 of them have been living here since they were babies. They don’t have homes in Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador. These kids are as American as anybody else,” Mr. Barrueta says.

“It’s unfair,” he adds, but they have to wait until the [the rules change] or politicians and lawmakers change U.S. policy. “Not educating them is telling them to go out in the streets and find something else to do, and that is not a wise thing.”

For one thing, Mr. Barrueta explained that some of “their parents are illiterate in Spanish and English, and [the students] become leaders in their family and they begin the connection to the American community because they are raised speaking English.”

“They have enormous potential, and that’s why I do this,” he says. Besides, “it keeps me busy and off the streets.”

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