Students from across Georgia came to participate in the 23rd Latino Youth Leadership Conference. (Natalie Sandlow)

Hundreds of middle and high school students  buzzed around Emory University’s campus on Dec. 3, speaking both Spanish and English. Students from across Georgia came to participate in the 23rd Latino Youth Leadership Conference, held by the Latin American Association, as part of a long-standing partnership with the University. 

Mentors led small groups of students. Many were Emory alumni or current students and staff, and they wore bright red shirts with words like “perseverance,” “dedication,” “hard work” and “sacrifice” on them, shepherding their groups to and from workshops across campus. From learning how to put in an IV at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing to attending a college and career fair in the Math and Science Center, conference attendees gained insight into the many different facets of higher education.

For Elizabeth Garcia (26N), who attended the conference her senior year of high school, being a youth mentor at the conference holds sentimental value. 

“It was an inspiration,” Garcia said. “I didn’t really get to see many Latino people in higher education … so when you hear and see people that are doing that, that are fulfilling their dreams, it’s like, ‘Oh, I can do that too.’”

Garcia’s experience applying to college as a Latina student allowed her to answer the many questions her mentees asked throughout the day.

“The most common questions were things like, ‘How do I get into college?,’ ‘How do I pay for college?’” Garcia said. “For a lot of these students, their families are starting out living here. So they really don’t have the economic resources to come to these spaces of higher education.”

Conference attendees gained insight into the many different facets of higher education. (Natalie Sandlow)

Professor of Pedagogy in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Vialla Hartfield-Mendez played an integral role in creating the partnership between Emory and the Latin American Association. Professor Hartfield-Mendez created the schedules and helped plan workshops. On the day of the conference, she attended various workshops, checking in on the experience she helped plan. 

“The overarching goal of having the conference annually is to encourage Latinx students to think about college in their future,” Hartfield-Mendez said. 

Hartfield-Mendez’s motivation for getting involved with the Latin American Association was also sparked by foresight into how building the partnership could benefit the Emory community. 

“When I first came to Emory, there were very few Latinx students,” Hartfield-Mendez said. “A good number of Emory students set foot on Emory’s campus for the first time in the Latino Youth Leadership Conference. There are many full circle moments. Now, after so many years, the campus is different because of that long-standing, iterative relationship.”

The difference Hartfield-Mendez is referring to is the increase of Latino students at Emory. Although Emory’s percentage of Latino students increased from 7.5% to 9.2% from 2019 to 2021, the national enrollment of Latino students in higher education decreased by 7% those same years. 

Latino families were hit hard by the pandemic, with 49% of Hispanic adults experiencing job loss or layoffs. This contributed to the drop in Latinxo enrollment in college, as many potential students stayed home to work and contribute to family income. 

The Latin American Association in partnership with Emory University hosted the 23rd Latino Youth Leadership Conference. (Natalie Sandlow)

Rita Thrasher teaches English as a second language classes in the evening at Mountain Education Charter High School in Ellijay, Ga. She accompanied her students to the Latino Youth Leadership Conference for the first time this year. 

Many of Thrasher’s students wake up early in the morning to work, and then attend class from 4 to 9 p.m. 

“They’re working all day, they’re going to school at night, and then they’re going to church throughout the week,” Thrasher said. “I hope that … when they see somebody who looks like them [attending college], you realize you can do that too.”

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Sophie Reiss (25C, she/her) is from Atlanta, GA and is majoring in history and English and creative writing. Outside of writing for the Wheel, she plays on Emory’s Women and Gender Expansive Frisbee Team, and is involved in the Emory Pulse. She enjoys taking naps in odd places and poetry.