College, careers and their dreams — focus of Latino Youth Conference

Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College, welcomed several hundred students to the 20th Annual Latino Youth Conference

Even though he’s got four years of high school ahead of him, Alan Ramos, an eighth-grader at Wyoming Junior High School, says college is already part of his plan for the future.

“I definitely want to go,” says Ramos, who is not sure about his career path. Those plans could include joining his father’s heating and cooling business or branching out in medicine, he said.

Ramos was among several hundred eighth-graders who braved slippery roads and blustery winds recently to attend the 20th Annual Latino Youth Conference at the Gerald R. Ford Fieldhouse at Grand Rapids Community College

Speaker Gabe Salazar said he escaped poverty and gang activity thanks to a caring mentor

Alan Bedolla-Diaz, also a Wyoming eighth-grader who enjoys playing alto saxophone, says he hopes to incorporate his love of music into his college studies. “I’m pretty good at it and I get pretty good grades,” he said.

Aimed at first generation college students, the theme of the March 5 conference was “El Poder De Sonar,” or “The Power of Dreams.”

The day began with a keynote speech by Gabe Salazar, a 42-year-old Dallas motivational speaker who told students he came from a fatherless home in which homelessness, gang activity and hunger were realities.

“Great things can happen to kids when they don’t give up,” said Salazar, who encouraged the students to go beyond wishing and start dreaming about their future.

The high-energy speaker joked his family was so poor, they were forced to wear sneakers that bore the label “Adios” instead of “Adidas.”

Salazar, who estimates he has challenged more than 2 million teenagers to attend college, stressed the importance of finding a mentor to guide the students through the process of enrolling in college and finding scholarships to help them pay for college.

Alan Bedolla-Diaz was among several hundred eighth-graders who braved slippery roads and blustery winds recently to attend the 20th Annual Latino Youth Conference at the Gerald R. Ford Fieldhouse at Grand Rapids Community College

Mentors also can help students tough it out when faced with challenges, said Salazar, who credits his high school principal with guiding him through high school and college. “What I learned is that mentors can make a big difference in your life,” he said.

The conference also included a series of breakout sessions in which volunteers coached the students in college preparation activities, navigating the college application process, and exploring careers.

“The 2019 Latino Youth Conference will commemorate 20 years of providing young students an affirming space to be who they are: young, Hispanic/Latino, and full of hope and optimism,” said B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, GRCC’s chief equity and inclusion officer.

“Encouraging these students to reflect on the ‘power of their dreams’ is particularly important to resisting socio-political rhetoric that besieges Latino communities domestically and abroad. Historically, the Latino Youth Conference, founded by GRCC alumni, empowers young people. This year’s event will continue that legacy.”

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio.

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