When 18-year-old Maritza Martinez enrolls at Grand Rapids Community College next fall, she’ll have a $500 scholarship for books in her pocket to help pave her way.
The help comes from the scholarship the Comstock Park High School senior earned from the 16th Annual Latino Youth Conference. The conference works to show Latino eighth-graders that college is a real possibility for them in part by providing more than $40,000 in college scholarships for graduating high school seniors during the past 16 years.
“Most of my friends’ parents never went to college, most of them never finished high school, and they don’t understand the importance of getting an education,” said Martinez. “I’ve always planned on going to college to pursue my goal of a career in criminal justice. I want to be a homicide detective.”
Martinez’s experience is becoming more common but high school dropout rates for Latinos still are nearly twice that of the general population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The dropout rate for Hispanics fell from 32 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in 2012 while the overall rate in 2012 stood at 7 percent.
That’s why the annual Youth Latino Conference invites attendees to GRCC each year to acquaint them with an actual college campus, provide them with dozens of workshops on job opportunities, college study skills, and presentations by students who once were in their shoes. Cesar Gonzalez, now 33 and a mortgage lender with Mercantile Bank, said he remembers the positive impact the conference had on his life.
“That first year really opened my eyes to a lot of potential,” said Martinez, who returns to work at the conference each year. “It’s really about planting the seeds to get them thinking about something they’ll want to do for the a career. For some, we know it’s not going to be college, but there are other things they can do and this gets them thinking about what that might be.”
More than 1,000 students attended this year’s event on March 3. Most were from schools in the Kent Intermediate School District, though some came from as far away as Flint. Just under half came from the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
“Eighth- grade is so pivotal because it’s a transition year to high school,” said Mayda Bahamonde-Gunnell, executive director for leadership for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. “We want them to come in and talk to their peers about what their futures might look like so they can be ready for the workforce.”