Georgia Students Come to Emory for Latino Youth Conference

More than 1300 middle and high school students attended the conference.
More than 1300 middle and high school students attended the conference.
Credit Martha Dalton/WABE News

About 6% of Georgia’s college students were Latino in 2012, according to state data. Atlanta’s Latin American Association wants to grow that number. That’s why the group hosted the 14th annual Latino Youth Conference at Emory University Saturday.

Hear the broadcast version of this story.

Through speeches, workshops, and a college and career fair, more than 1300 Latino middle and high school students were encouraged to set their sights on college. One person, in particular, made an impression on Victor Castillo, a senior at North Cobb High School.

“I liked the motivational speaker,” he said.

That speaker is Los Angeles-based Gabriel Salazar. His over-arching message for students was to persevere, especially in the face of social problems that can hold some students back.

“I believe you’re bigger than poverty,” he told a group of about 100 boys. “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.”

And, although the number of Latinos on college campuses is increasing nationwide, there are still some obstacles. Salazar said attrition is a problem. And, he said, so is access.

“We also need policies to change on the national level that allow and afford students who come from different documentations or backgrounds to be able to, if not find financial aid, even be accepted into that college,” Salazar said.

Alicia Abella, an assistant Vice President at AT&T labs research, also spoke at the conference. She said cost is a big issue for some families. And, she said, sometimes cultural differences play a part.

“A lot of the parents of Latino girls don’t want them to go away to college,” Abella said. “They want them really close by. But even some parents of the boys, also. They want them close by. They want to make sure that they’re home because that’s where they can keep an eye on them and they’re safe.”

But then there are stories like that of Wendy Rodriguez. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when she was little. She says they worked several low-wage jobs to ensure her future.

Wendy came to the youth conference two years ago as a high school junior. Now she’s a freshman at Emory, who just declared her major in neuroscience and behavioral biology.

“My mom works as an assistant operator at a recycling plant,” she said. “She comes home every day so tired and she stands up every day. And I don’t want her to live that anymore. So, I want to become someone very important and help others and also help my parents.”

Wendy says she learned how to apply for scholarships and financial aid at the conference. The Latin American Association is hoping the conference will also help other students overcome potential obstacles on their path to higher education.