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Emory partners with Latin American Association to inspire students to pursue higher education

Mario Becerra Alemán first visited Emory as a sixth grader attending the Latino Youth Leadership Conference. Now he’s a sophomore on campus and helped plan the same experience for middle and high school students. Emory Photo/Video

The first time sophomore Mario Becerra Alemán set foot on Emory’s campus, he was a sixth grader at Sequoyah Middle School in Atlanta. He had recently joined the Latin American Association’s after-school program and signed up for a field trip to attend the group’s annual Latino Youth Leadership Conference (LYLC).

“I was determined to go to college so immediately jumped on board,” he says. “I didn’t know much about the conference. All I knew was that it was being held at Emory and that they would talk about college.”

Even with limited knowledge going into the conference, the day was a valuable experience for Alemán, who is pursuing a joint major in mathematics and computer science in Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 

“I gained a decent understanding of the process required to apply to and get into college,” he says. “I was able to see chemistry demonstrations and visit the planetarium. Those were key experiences that solidified my dreams of pursuing a STEM-related field.” 

Exposure to those types of opportunities is foundational to the conference.

“This is an opportunity to make a very big difference for young people who would not otherwise have the chance to imagine a future that includes higher education,” says Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, director of engaged learning at Emory and steering committee chair for the 2019 event. 

Celebrating milestones

Aspects of this year’s conference connect with several important anniversaries at Emory, including 100 years since the university’s business school and the Michael C. Carlos Museum were established. 2019 also marks the 25th anniversary of naming the business school in honor of Roberto C. Goizueta, one of the great business leaders of the 20th century and former CEO and chairman of The Coca-Cola Company. 

Students attending the conference will receive t-shirts that include a quote from Goizueta: “You must reach out to the opportunity, take it in your hands and mold it into a work that brings value to your society.”

The commemoration as part of the conference is even more appropriate because of Goizueta’s Cuban heritage, notes Julie Barefoot, associate dean of engagement and partnerships for Goizueta Business School. 

Another Emory-specific highlight will be alumna Teresa M. Rivero 85Ox 87BBA 93MPH welcoming attendees to the conference. Rivero worked for the Latin American Association after earning her bachelor’s degree and now sits on the Emory University Board of Trustees. 

Planning to expand horizons

The conference, which celebrates its own 20th anniversary in 2019, is open to middle and high school students along with their parents and teachers. All students, parents and educators (teachers and counselors) in attendance will attend workshops and interactive sessions that address topics ranging from embracing cultural heritage to applying for financial aid and scholarships. They also will visit a college and career fair.

“Many Latinx students are nurtured in communities that are loving and supportive, but they don’t always have access to the tools to help them get to college and find success there,” explains Hartfield-Méndez. “The conference is intentionally organized to help students imagine higher education for themselves, help parents know how to encourage that process and help teachers spark and nurture the intellectual curiosity and excitement about learning that will move students forward.” 

Hands-on activities and opportunities to visit college class simulations or to share their perspective on issues keep the day interesting for all students. One highlight of the middle school program will be activities at the Michael C. Carlos Museum and the chance to pet llamas near the Emory quad.

High school students will expand their mindsets through story circles, such as one facilitated by Alemán that will explore meaningful experiences that have redefined the students’ views of themselves or the world. They also will participate in ideation sessions at Goizueta Business School, where they will work as groups to practice creative problem solving.

“An ideation session is an intentional way to generate new ideas through brainstorming,” Barefoot explains. “When a group wants to solve a problem, activities through ideation — such as using a dot voting process or designing an object using paperclips — can help get their minds thinking more creatively.”

More than 150 student mentor-guides from Emory and other local universities will lead groups throughout the day, offering participants a chance to ask questions about college life or other experiences. Many of the mentor-guides are Latinx students themselves, says Hartfield-Méndez, which can add value to the advice and encouragement they offer. 

As with Alemán, those conversations and other experiences from the day can eventually lead some participants to become Emory students. When he began applying to colleges, Emory was the only Georgia institution on his list.

“Emory was always in the back of my head since I had toured the campus and attended class-like sessions,” he says. “It didn’t seem very important at the time, but there was always a comparison between Emory and the other schools once I started applying. In the end, I chose the school that checked the majority of my boxes: Emory.”

Intentionally reaching students

Emory hosted the Latino Youth Leadership Conference in years past and faculty, staff and students across campus are excited to do so again. It’s one more way the university can reach potential students who might not realize that college can be within their grasp.

“We’ve seen continued growth in Latinx representation at Emory,” says William Segura, associate dean of undergraduate admissions, who first became involved with the confrence in 2011. “We recruit across the globe — from California to South Florida domestically, to Central and Latin America internationally — so we have seen a higher rate of Latinx students applying and being admitted to Emory over the past five years.” 

Outreach programming for prospective and admitted applicants from first generation and/or underrepresented cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds also has expanded, leading Emory to better identify and engage high-achieving Latinx students.

“The goal of these opportunities is to introduce students who are underrepresented on our campus and in higher education to Emory, with the hope of having them join our learning community,” says Rebbecca Kaplan, associate dean of undergraduate admissions. “In this way, our efforts align with the LYLC by encouraging a diverse and inclusive community and by introducing students to our campus when they might not have considered Emory.”

Other avenues Emory has taken to address Latinx issues and teach all students about cross-cultural studies include the recent hire of three scholars in Latinx studies. The new faculty members will join Emory College of Arts and Sciences, where they and existing faculty members in related fields of study will help establish and advance Emory’s academic eminence in the field.

In addition, Emory has worked with local communities to establish new learning opportunities with residents along the Buford Highway corridor and in South DeKalb County.

Alemán’s involvement with the Buford Highway initiatives led to his applying for and receiving a Joy of Giving Something (JGS) fellowship grant through Imagining America to support a separate project. 

Imagining America is a group of higher education institutions that partner with their communities to address issues through the arts, humanities and design. Alemán was one of eight awardees nationwide to receive support for his project in 2019: digital storytelling journals for high school students. Because decreasing graduation rates can be linked to domestic problems, Alemán hopes the journals will help combat drop-outs by providing a safe format where students can share their problems.

Conference organizers are excited about these steps and how they might represent new opportunities for students first learning of Emory through the LYLC.

“We know that hosting this conference makes a difference because there are current Emory students who first came to the campus through the LYLC and began to imagine the possibility of Emory as a place for them,” Hartfield-Méndez says.

“We hope that students will leave the LYLC feeling inspired about their futures and the many opportunities that await them,” Kaplan adds. “We especially hope that everyone participating in the day’s events gets to see us for who we really are: an inclusive, socio-economically diverse community of students changing the world for the better.”

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