The Latin American Association (LAA) hosted the 14th annual Latino Youth Leadership Conference this weekend, featuring speakers and workshops for middle and high school students to encourage them to pursue higher education at Emory.

This is the third consecutive year that Emory partnered with the LAA to host the event.

More than 1,200 students and 200 volunteers participated, according to LAA Communications Manager Aixa Pascual. In addition, more than 90 schools from all over Georgia were represented among the participants, according to a Nov. 6 LAA press release.

The press release notes that through its youth program and annual conference, the LAA and its partners “are working to decrease Latino dropout rates and close the achievement gap.”

The conference began with an opening ceremony at the Woodruff P.E. Center Saturday morning and continued with presentations from the conference’s keynote speaker and career motivational speaker Gabe Salazar and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Sonia Nazario.

“He was very energetic,” Pascual said of Salazar’s speech. “He really hit it off with the kids.”

The speech explored the difference between wishing and dreaming, Pascual said, the latter of which Salazar said helps to overcome many of today’s adversity and social barriers.

“I believe you’re bigger than poverty,” Salazar said. “I believe you’re bigger than the lack of education. You’re bigger than gang violence. You’re bigger than all of these issues that are affecting your community and your society in a negative way. You are bigger than that.”

Nazario, who spoke at Emory last week about her 2006 book Enrique’s Journey, presented a workshop on storytelling.

According to LAA High School Program Manager Saul Valdez, the conference gives younger students a taste of higher education.

“The significance for me is how middle and high school students get to connect with current college students,” he said.

In addition to listening to speakers, the students also learned about educational opportunities through a college and career fair.

According to a Pew Research Center study cited in the press release, the rate of Latino high school dropouts has been declining; however, Latinos still lag behind other demographic groups in earning bachelor’s degrees.

In addition to encouraging students’ academic aspirations, the conference also gives them information about applying for scholarships and financial aid, a structural barrier to many students.

The annual conference seeks to advance higher education among Latinos through leading by example, Valdez said.

“What’s beautiful about it is that there are a lot of student-led workshops,” he said. “We’re all walking and talking symbols of higher education.”

Twenty institutions of higher education were represented among college student volunteers, Valdez said.

According to Pascual, Emory’s partnership has a had a significant and  positive impact on the conference.

“It was very powerful, very exciting to see them walking around the Emory campus,” Pascual said. “We were thankful to have held it at Emory.”

Emory’s Office of Community and Diversity, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Center for Community Partnerships also participated in the event.

“It was a very inspiring event, and it’s all due to the efforts of the community at Emory and volunteers,” Valdez said.

– By Rupsha Basu