Sara Ramirez, 18, graduated from Ocean View High School on June 11 and is graduating from the El Viento program on Friday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / June 17, 2014)

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  • Huntington Beach, CA, United States

Recent high school graduate Sara Ramirez said her eyes and options are wide open thanks to an academic program she's been in for nine years.

Ramirez and 11 others from Ocean View High School, which held its graduation June 11, will have a second graduation ceremony Friday, this time for completing the El Viento program.

"It's taught me how to be open-minded," said Ramirez, 18. "With El Viento, we went on different field trips, we went all around Huntington Beach and California, so my mind just started blossoming and being open-minded about things I wanted to do."

El Viento helps the youths of the Oak View community — a predominantly underprivileged Latino neighborhood in Huntington Beach — get into college by providing academic assistance from fourth grade through high school. It also pays for the students' first two years of college.

Ramirez said her mind was consumed with thoughts of boys and looking good in the fourth grade, but her focus changed when she started the program.

She believes she wouldn't be attending Orange Coast College in the fall if she hadn't been in El Viento.

"I see all these people that used to go to my elementary school that didn't do El Viento, and half of them have kids and they still don't know what they want to be," Ramirez said. "My life would have totally been different if I didn't join the program."

The students are guided by various program directors. Erika Enz handles them while they are in high school. She said she tries to instill in each the importance of being independent.

"I don't like to hand-hold because when you leave [the program], nobody is going to be in your face and make sure you did this or that," Enz said.

Ramirez said she found having to rely on herself a daunting task when she was a freshman at Ocean View, but gradually became more confident.

Throughout her high school career, Ramirez said, she would occasionally change her mind about which college or school she wanted to attend. While considering a degree in theater, she thought about attending the New York Film Academy.

She opted to go to Orange Coast College to complete her general education first and then transfer to a four-year campus.

After Ocean View High's graduation ceremony, Oak View residents, many strangers, approached Ramirez to congratulate her.

"It's like I graduated and at the same time gave people some type of hope," Ramirez said. "That's inspiring me to keep going to higher education because I want to fight for my people."