As Pablo Villalvazo heads into his senior year at Union High School, he knows there will be a lot of unknowns because of COVID-19. But of one thing he is certain: nothing in his final year of high school is going to stand in the way of his plans and dreams.
“My dream is to one day run for office and represent the people of my community,” he said. “I want others to understand where I come from and what it means to care for those who are underrepresented.”
The second-youngest in a family of four children, Pablo credits his mom and dad with his drive to succeed.
“They made a lot of sacrifices for me to be where I am today,” he said. “They migrated three times, total, since I have been born. They raised me in church, where I have learned to love my neighbor. They trust me to make the right decisions, and I love them for that. They inspire me.”
Those who know Pablo say he, in turn, inspires others.
“… He is action-oriented and ready to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves,” said Sarah Keranen-Lopez, director of the TRIO Educational Talent Search Program at Grand Valley State University, which Pablo has been part of for two years. “He inspires me because, at his young age, he is already to begin making a difference in his community and is active in planning for his future.”
Pablo also has participated in the Grand Rapids Mayor’s Youth Council — where he served as president — and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Youth Grant Committee, which he co-chaired. But what he really loves, he said, is learning about and getting involved in local government. So the chance this summer to be part of the National Student Leadership Conference was a dream come true.
He was one of just 120 students from around the country picked to be part of the five-day virtual event. It gave participants the chance to network with Ivy League representatives and political leaders, and to take in workshops on topics such as decision making and problem solving, the importance of national services, the political process and coalition building, and multiculturalism and diversity.
Pablo was joined by Wyoming High School students Duc Ngan Chau and Kiara Smith. All three were chosen to represent TRIO, a program through the U.S. Department of Education designed to help low-income and first-generation students graduate from high school and attend the post secondary institution of their choice.
Mock Congress Winner
With his aspirations to one day hold political office, Pablo said a highlight of the conference was the Mock Congress. He and his team were charged to pick a position on an issue they were assigned — in their case, should vaccines be federally mandated? — and chose to argue that they should not be. Pablo and one other team member were selected to speak and represent the entire team, and the 120 conference attendees voted them first-place winner.
It was the culmination of a week that he said lived up to the hype.
“Calling the staff of my U.S senators was fun,” he said, “speaking with college reps was exciting and hearing from young people from my state running for elected office was definitely inspiring and gives me hope for what is to come.”
As for the Mock Congress, Pablo said he was nervous to present, but glad it all worked out. It was great, he said, being part of a team.
“When you have great minds on a project,” he added, “you will have a great outcome.” The bonus: he won a laptop, which he uses every day.
Preparing for Greatness
Pablo was recommended to be part of the National Student Leadership conference by Ashley Fritz, his TRIO adviser. In the student’s senior year, the adviser helps with the college application process. Leading up to that year, the program provides study skills training, college awareness workshops and activities, summer learning camps, career testing and exploration, and more.
The program serves 700-plus students per year at Innovation Central, Ottawa Hills and Union high school, and Burton, Riverside and Westwood middle schools. It also serves Wyoming High School. Each year, the program recruits new participants to the program and currently is accepting students in the target schools from grades 6-12.
Pablo is on track to graduate from the Challenge Scholars program, which offers a way for families on Grand Rapids’ West Side to cover the costs of education after high school. Students who stay on track and graduate from Union High School will attend college or technical training tuition-free.
Pablo plans to study history in university and then attend law school. He has his sights set on the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Grand Valley, Pittsburgh, Princeton and Grand Rapids Community College.