SALINAS -- When Mateo Sixtos drives to his computer science classes every weekday, he takes a good, hard look at the strawberry fields he first worked when he was only 10 years old. Even back then, he aced a California state math test, posting college level scores. But the young boy still had to join his parents in the fields to pick "la fruta del diablo" -- the devil's fruit.

"It's a reminder to me," Sixtos says, " if I don't study, this is where I'm going to end up."

Today he is 18 years old and is not likely to wind up flat on his back from picking the sweet, stubborn delicacy that grows low to the ground. The Mexican-American has enrolled in a new, rigorous and academically daring college program that promises to help students from the agricultural Salinas Valley earn a bachelor's degree in computer science in only three years.

"We're only one hour away from Silicon Valley, but we might as well be on the other side of the planet," says Zahi Kanaan-Atallah, dean of advanced technology at Hartnell Community College in Salinas. "Our intent is to be the steppingstone from menial work in the fields to higher paying jobs."

Sixtos and about 30 others are the first students in the Computer Science and Information Technology Bachelor's Degree in 3 Years program, or CSIT-in-3. The program is run jointly by Hartnell and Cal State Monterey Bay. It's the brainchild of two academics and a Japanese-American orchid grower who realized that the traditional college system isn't working for minority, rural and low-income students, even ones who are capable of succeeding in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math.

"The system is broken," says Joe Welch, a computer science instructor at Hartnell. "It isn't able to overcome the problems in the pathway to a degree in a field as demanding as computer science."

Those who have studied the issue say computer science has become an exclusive club mostly because Latinos, blacks and women don't get the same support and encouragement from teachers and parents. Nor do they see role models in the field who look like them. By the time they are exposed to the subject in college, it is often too late for them to embrace computer science as a major.

Orchids to output

Andy Matsui made a fortune growing orchids and has become one of Monterey County's leading philanthropists. He's given dozens of scholarships to low-income students from each of the county's 14 high schools. But he wasn't getting the results he wanted.

"Almost none of them could finish college in four years," he says.

His grants couldn't keep up with tuition increases at state colleges in recent years, forcing students to drop out or take jobs that slowed their progress.

Brian De Anda helps to write programming code as his fellow students look on at the Hartnell College Alisal Campus in Salinas Friday, Oct. 25, 2013.  From
Brian De Anda helps to write programming code as his fellow students look on at the Hartnell College Alisal Campus in Salinas Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. From left are, De Anda, Daniel Diaz, Thang Fenton, Monse Hernandez and Mateo Sixtos. (Patrick Tehan)

Matsui and William Barr, who is an academic adviser for Matsui's foundation, approached the presidents of Hartnell and Cal State Monterey Bay. The orchid grower would fund an accelerated degree program for low-income students, but it had to benefit the regional economy. They settled on computer science. Matsui pledged $2.9 million in scholarships for the first three years, or about $30,000 for each student by graduation. But to deliver in three years, Welch had to throw out the college handbook.

He teamed up with Sathya Narayanan, director of Cal State Monterey Bay's computer science and technology degree program. They came up with a plan that would nurture CSIT students at Hartnell and gradually transition them to upper division classes at Cal State Monterey Bay.

Students in the program take the same courses at the same time, do the same assignments, write the same papers and take the same tests.

"This is what we tell them," said Narayanan of the strictures of CSIT-in-3. "You give your calendar away for the next three years. You don't get to say you will do this or you will do that. We will do that for you."

A full-time counselor keeps them on track. On "enrichment Fridays," they share their worries in small support groups. But the instructors don't think scholarships and a carefully managed curriculum will be enough. That's why they're also asking Silicon Valley companies to give their students paid summer internships. They've run into entrenched hiring habits. The companies favor interns from big-name or elite schools.

"I tell them our students will outwork anybody," Welch says.

Help the folks

Adilene Constante got a Matsui scholarship. She can't wait to graduate in three years, but for more personal reasons.

"I'm in a hurry," the 18-year-old says. "I'm trying to get a job as fast as I can to provide for my parents. I don't like seeing them still working in the fields. It's hard labor. I just want them to enjoy themselves from now on."

Her parents, Mexican immigrants who settled in the Salinas Valley, forbade her from following them into the fields. She obeyed and became the first in her family to graduate from high school. She was accepted by several colleges, including UC Davis. But she chose CSIT-in-3.

"I can graduate in three years, get a job in computer science and then go for my master's degree, maybe in biology," she says. "That's six to 10 years of college packed into five at most. I'm in a hurry."

Like almost every other CSIT student, Constante doesn't mind that she won't have a traditional college experience; no sis-boom-bah! at football games, no sorority dances, fraternity beer bashes and all that. OK, maybe a dance or two once they've moved over to Monterey Bay.

Kanaan-Atallah, the Hartnell dean, isn't surprised the students are dedicated to the narrowly focused rigors of the new program.

"Our students like staying close to home," he says. "I think it's because they're so family-oriented, have such strong family values."

Daniel Perez, 21, is one of the few in the program who did not qualify for a Matsui scholarship, but he's hitched his wagon to CSIT anyway. He was studying computer networking -- connecting office computers to each other -- when Welch recruited him for CSIT. Perez makes ends meet with student loans and smaller grants.

"We're his project right now," Perez says about Welch and the program. "He's not just making a change in our community. What's he's doing will change education as a whole."

Do you have a story for Eastside/Westside? Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com.