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Emory joins with Latino Youth Leadership Conference to encourage students to attend college

Emory junior Mario Becerra Alemán and postdoc Roxana Chicas, who earned her PhD in nursing at Emory, will help mentor students at this year’s Latino Youth Leadership Conference, after participating in the conference as students themselves.

For 21 years, the Latino Youth Leadership Conference, organized by the Latin American Association (LAA), has been a driving force empowering students on their higher education journey — thanks, in part, to a fruitful partnership with Emory. Host of the conference four previous times, the university also is at the fore of this year’s virtual activities, joining Georgia State University for a conference that kicks off Oct. 29, centered on the theme “Create the World We Want to Live In.” 

More Latinx students attend college than any other underrepresented group. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Latinx students in college increased between 2016 and 2017, one of only two underrepresented populations whose numbers increased. The challenge comes farther along on the path: Latinx students drop out at a higher rate for reasons often involving economics, with 70 percent coming from families in the bottom half of earners, according to the American Council on Education.

The planning committee for this year’s conference is chaired by Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, professor of pedagogy in Emory’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese and director of engaged learning at the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, and Eliezer Vélez, managing director of youth services at the LAA.

“What we have learned over many decades is that access to the kind of education Emory offers is critical to the Latinx community and that a diversity of perspectives at Emory is vital to fulfilling our mission,” Hartfield-Méndez says. “In other words, a flourishing partnership such as the one between the LAA and Emory makes it possible for both of us to do our work well.” 

Vélez notes that “the knowledge and passion of faculty and staff at Emory has made all the difference.” While Emory wants Latinx students to apply, “the larger goal of everyone from Emory is making Latinx students aware of the many viable options for them in higher education,” he explains.

Keeping engaged during a pandemic

Since the onset of COVID-19, the online environment for learning has been tough on all students, especially those who are Latinx, Black and other people of color as well as on first-generation students, who often are in the same group. In an atmosphere challenging for its job losses, illness and online learning, the primary goal of this year’s conference, says Vélez, “is to lift the spirits of our youth, to tell them not to put your dreams on hold because of the pandemic. Be an agent for change.”

In going virtual, the conference can point to tangible advantages. For example, a normal in-person conference might involve 1,200 to 1,500 students, along with 200 teachers and parents. This year, the number of registered participants will be closer to 6,000 and the actual audience could be much larger, across Georgia and beyond. 

“There is no doubt that we will have a bigger footprint this year,” asserts Vélez, who promises that the conference planners “have kept the essence of the conference, which has proved helpful to so many students across two decades, but we also have brainstormed ways to reach more students and have a greater impact.” 

The (fun) run of show

On opening day of the conference, Oct. 29, a light-hearted mood will predominate. Atlanta United player Fernando Meza will kick things off at 10 a.m. Santiago Marquez, the CEO of LAA, and Carlos del Rio of the Emory School of Medicine will share welcome remarks. Motivational speaker Gabe Salazar will address attendees. Keeping the morning’s energy high will be musical performances from Mariachi Búhos de Oro as well as pop and R&B artist Cristna Quiñones.

Though the conference website asks its main populations to register — students, parents, teachers, mentor-guides and sponsors/exhibitors — the public is welcome. Links to workshops, which are tailored by class year, will be accessible not just for the duration of the conference, but for many months to come.

“We are not staging a discrete event as much as we are building a legacy,” Vélez says. “We want schools and students to see our conference website as an enduring resource and come back to it repeatedly.” 

Emory faculty, staff and students are helping here as well. Other Emory planning committee members include Karen Stolley, Karen Andes, Alan Anderson and Emmy Corey. Stolley, professor of Spanish, and Andes, associate professor of global health at the Rollins School of Public Health, helped ensure that all the training Emory faculty have received on virtual learning would benefit the videos prepared for this conference.

Most workshops will have an interactive component through which middle and high school students can submit their work and receive responses from student mentor-guides or Emory alumni. To Hartfield-Méndez, that will be one of the conference’s most powerful takeaways: the chance for middle and high school students “to see Latinx undergraduates, graduate and professional school students in action. These are students like themselves who are just a little farther along on the education path, lighting the way for those just behind them.” 

The only synchronous event at the otherwise virtual conference will be the college fair that runs from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Oct. 31. Along with Emory and Georgia State, participants include Beulah Heights University, Brenau University, Chattahoochee State College, Devry University, Georgia College and State University, Georgia Gwinnett College, Georgia Tech, Life University, Oglethorpe University, University of Georgia, University of North Georgia and University of West Georgia. 

Emory’s Office of Undergraduate Admission has been deeply involved this year, preparing the workshop “So You Want to Go to College?” for 11th and 12th graders. Parents will benefit as well, with Lupe Alfonso, senior assistant dean of admission, offering four workshops for them in Spanish about the value of higher education and breaking down the sometimes intimidating process of applying for financial aid.

Reaching students as soon as possible is key. Unlike other conferences for Latinx youth, this one also has a vibrant experiential-learning curriculum focused on middle-schoolers. According to Vélez, engaging with students earlier helps the idea take root that “advancing their learning beyond high school is the pathway to change their lives for the better.”

Likely a big draw for this group will be the workshop “Science at Your Fingertips,” presented by Emory and ScienceATL, the engineers of the Atlanta Science Festival. It will involve a scavenger hunt as well as fun, family-based missions that a team of Emory student-scientists will review.

Superheroes and storytellers

Emory junior Mario Becerra Alemán will help 9th and 10th graders design their own digital stories. His first time on Emory’s campus came when he was a 6th grader at Atlanta’s Sequoyah Middle School and signed up to participate in the conference. Last year, Alemán was one of eight students who received a Joy of Giving Something fellowship grant through Imagining America. The grant helped him advance his research about digital stories and their value for Latinx high school students preparing for college.

In “Trying on the Cape: Careers as Nursing Superheroes,” Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing students will highlight for conference participants the multiple and sometimes surprising career paths in health care; students also will have access to Emory’s simulation lab and get a glimpse of how health care professionals efficiently convey information to each other about an emergency. 

Roxana Chicas, an Emory postdoc, recently earned her PhD here in nursing. While a student at Georgia Perimeter College, Chicas first participated in the conference, hosted that year at Emory. Through her efforts, last year the School of Nursing took a more active role at the conference, with Chicas showing 200 8th and 9th graders the simulation lab, and she has been involved this year as well.  

At one time undocumented, Chicas knows about challenging journeys and reflects: “It is important for Latinx students to leverage education to improve our lives and those of our community.”

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