For as long as she can remember, Allison Arnold has been able to rely on the Latino Youth Conference for encouragement and support. The University of Michigan freshman first attended in middle school. The fact her mother, Christina Arnold, is its chairwoman certainly hasn’t hurt either.
Allison recently returned to help her mother out for the conference’s 15th year at Grand Rapids Community College. As she looked around at nearly 1,100 eighth-graders piling into the Gerald R. Ford Fieldhouse, she recalled how she felt at their age.
“It’s a challenge for students in middle school and high school: ‘I shouldn’t go to a university where I’ll feel out of place,'” said Allison, a City High School graduate. “Conferences like this are important to instill that it’s not true, and it shouldn’t stop you from following your dreams.”
She is following her dream of a journalism degree, helped by a $1,000 scholarship she received at last year’s conference. At this year’s recent event, two more students were so honored: Leticia Mosqueda of Wyoming High School and Sabrina Barrera of Ottawa Hills High School. Leticia plans to study business at GRCC and Sabrina will take pre-pharmacy at Aquinas College.
“The Power of Dreams” was the conference theme, and it was brought home with a powerful testimony – and plenty of humor – by keynote speaker Gabe Salazar.
“In America, we don’t need any more kids wishing,” Salazar exhorted students. “We need kids dreaming. When you dream, you see the steps, you see the journey, you see the process.”
Salazar, a popular motivational speaker, headlined a list of accomplished Latinos who urged students to pursue their educations and not be sidetracked by negative influences or ethnic stereotypes. Students came from 28 schools as far away as Paw Paw and Waverly, in the conference’s largest turnout yet.
Organized by GRCC’s Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Diversity Learning Center, with support from Kent ISD and other groups, it is the state’s largest such gathering, officials said. They encouraged students to take pride in their heritage and believe in themselves.
“There’s no ordinary student here, there’s no common student here,” said Eric Williams, GRCC executive director for equity affairs. “You’re all extraordinary and uncommon, and we have great expectations for you.”
Such expectations were exemplified by students like Daniel Lopez, a City High senior who designed the art work on conference programs and T-shirts. He still remembers the keynote speaker from when he attended: “She told us the path to success would be education, and I agree with her.”
That theme was forcefully delivered by Salazar, a Los Angeles-based speaker who knew homelessness and gang life while being raised by a single mother. The first in his family to attend college, Salazar drew roars of laughter with comic renditions of his weak street-fighting skills. But he sternly warned against drug abuse and stressed it takes more than idle wishes to make dreams come true.
“Each and every single one of you has a purpose, to do something big with your life,” Salazar said.
Don’t Let Fears Stop You
Other speakers told of overcoming fears and obstacles on their way to success. Cesar Gonzalez, a Central High School graduate, said he never aspired to anything more than a job until his boss at Bridge Street Electric challenged him to shoot higher. He attended Davenport College and is now a mortgage lender at Mercantile Bank of Michigan.
“If you really want something, you have to go out and get it,” said Gonzalez, who helped plan the conference. “No one’s going to give it to you.”
Jessica Cruz, a Puerto Rico native who also graduated from Central, suffered from self-doubt at Columbia University Teachers College. She told students she gained confidence by looking at her own heritage, eventually earning two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. there.
“When I saw how far my family has come, I stopped doubting my presence at that institution,” said Cruz, associate director of the Center for Latin Studies at Ferris State University.
Such encouragements from conference alumni can be huge for today’s young participants, said Christina Arnold, director of the GRCC Diversity Learning Center.
“Many of our students just need that one person to tell them ‘we believe in you,'” Arnold said. “‘You can be successful and education is a key to that success.”
Student Makayla Zakem said she took the day’smessages seriously.
“You’ve just got to try harder,” said Makayla, an Alger Middle School eighth-grader. “You can accomplish your goals.”