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Conference at Emory marks nearly a quarter century of supporting the college dreams of Latinx youth

Participants in the 24th-annual Latino Youth Leadership Conference (LYLC) enjoyed a high-energy day of being warmly welcomed to Emory’s Atlanta campus and provided with extensive resources to aid them and their parents in their college searches. A result of the longstanding partnership between Emory and the Latin American Association (LAA), this year’s conference centered on the theme “Together we create the future.”

Following the closing ceremony on Nov. 11 at Glenn Memorial Church — which featured a motivational speaker, the Juan Botello Band, a step-and-stroll exhibition and Mexican baile folklórico — the 600 high school and middle school students from 20 area schools headed to their buses carrying a blue backpack filled with mementos of their day.

But among the most important items they received were things that don’t fit readily into a backpack: increased belief in themselves and communal support to enable their successful transition to higher education.

As Luis Andino Bautista, managing director of youth services at the LAA, commented: “Witnessing the power of connection and inspiration, as these young minds engaged in diverse workshops, explored career paths and connected with colleges at the fair, was truly rewarding. The presence of Latinx college students as mentors added a personal touch, fostering a sharing of stories filled with challenges and triumphs.”

Why this conference matters 

According to the Pew Research Center, Latinx enrollment at postsecondary institutions in the U.S. has increased exponentially, rising from 1.5 million in 2000 to a high of 3.8 million in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a decline in postsecondary enrollment among Latinx students and most other racial and ethnic groups. Despite overall growth, relatively small shares of Latinx students are enrolled in college or have obtained a bachelor’s degree.

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, teaching professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and director of engaged learning at the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE), has long been involved with the conference and points out that this year, “There has been even more integration of different parts of the university, and we are now seeing more of the content of the conference being shaped by Latinx voices on campus — faculty, students, staff and administrators. Some of these Emory community members, such as assistant professor Roxana Chicas in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, link their current roles to earlier experiences in the LYLC. Others come from many parts of the United States and bring those perspectives with them.”

In addition to her role as associate director at the Center for Women, Taina Figueroa is a philosophy doctoral student at Emory. She says that she happened upon the conference during one of its previous iterations on campus and found the mission behind it deeply meaningful. 

To Figueroa, “The Latino Youth Leadership Conference isn’t just an opportunity for the greater Atlanta Latinx community to spend a day at Emory. It is also a chance for Emory’s Latinx community to connect with their greater Atlanta Latinx community. This is crucial to showing Georgia Latinx youth that they can find themselves, their languages, cultures and community at Emory and key to demonstrating that Emory’s small but growing Latinx students, faculty and staff can find themselves, their languages, cultures and community valued at the university and in Atlanta.”

The central role of the student mentor-guides 

Paula Figueroa 24C wishes she would have had the equivalent of the LYLC when she was in high school in Athens, Georgia. A mentor-guide for the past two years, Figueroa was part of a cohort of students accompanying the visiting middle and high school students during their time on campus, with each mentor-guide accompanying about 10 students throughout the day.

The conference was well-timed with the recent opening of Emory’s Belonging and Community Justice Identity Spaces, including Centro Latinx, which marked the first time that a community partner used the space. Seniors toured the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s exhibit “You Belong Here: Place, People, and Purpose in Latinx Photography,” while sophomores explored the Praise House Project.

According to Figueroa, who is a first-generation student, the campus tour that the guides provide tends to offer the greatest moments of connection.

“During that time,” says Figueroa, “the students sometimes share their doubts about college, in some cases because of family income.” She was raised by a single mother in a household of limited means, so her encouraging responses ring true. 

“The financial issues are real,” Figueroa says. “I talk to them about scholarships and work to empower them. My experience in being able to attend Emory shows them that it is possible.”

From her first days at Emory, Figueroa has relished her time as a resident of Empowering First, a living/learning community for first-generation students. Along with Taina Figueroa, Ana Catarina Teixeira, associate teaching professor of Portuguese, and several members of her residence hall, Figueroa also contributed to a workshop devoted to first-generation issues for 11th- and 12th-graders. 

When she graduates, Figueroa hopes to attend graduate school with an eye toward an academic career focused on researching Latinx populations and better understanding colorism — discrimination based on one’s skin tone. 

Asked what she would say if she could have addressed the entire body of visiting students, Figueroa says: “Being Latinx means that you are able to persevere through difficult circumstances in this country, which may be far away from your original home. Even if you don’t know it yet, you have created a lot of valuable skills and experiences that will help you out later in life. Your identity is important.”

One conference beneficiary who now gives back as an intern at the LAA is Brian Rosas, a first-year student at Oglethorpe University. Apart from his studies in sociology, Rosas hosts the LAA’s after-school program, the Latino Youth Leadership Academy, at Cross Keys High School.

Rosas says of his LYLC experience when he was in high school: “I was surrounded by people who looked like they could be my older brother or sister. It was such a heartwarming feeling to see hundreds of members from the Latinx community who were on track to graduate or had already graduated from college.”

His career plan is to graduate and perhaps work at the LAA: “I want to be able to give more to this community. I feel like I wouldn't have made it to college if it weren't for the support I received from the LAA and LYLC. By working at the LAA, I hope to be able to push a student in the right direction, in the same way that the LAA pushed me.”

Creative faculty sessions spur feelings of belonging

Bernard Fraga, associate professor of political science, joined forces with postdoctoral researcher Derek Wakefield to teach a session to juniors titled “Where Do You Belong? Where Do You Want to Belong?” An exercise in mapping, the session plotted the students’ schools, hangout spots and favorite restaurants on a map of the Atlanta metro area. An additional overlay showed Latino population demographics, such as the percentage of Latinx residents in a given neighborhood or school district.

According to Wakefield, some students pointed toward their spaces being in areas with a high Latinx percentage, while others talked about how their neighborhoods were in areas with a lower Latinx percentage. They also provided addresses that spanned the world, from New Mexico and Tennessee, to El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia, and even to Switzerland and Japan. 

“The exercise sparked many conversations about the importance of finding places and people around whom they can be comfortable and also gave students a chance to share their future goals and aspirations and to visually see where they want to go,” says Wakefield. 

María Elva González-Hernández, associate teaching professor of Spanish, conducted two sessions of “Acting Out Stories” for the 8th-graders. Her roots in the Atlanta Latinx community run deep, having facilitated multiple events with Cross Keys High School students and local Latinx artists. The Emory workshop provided students the opportunity to tap into their imagination as they created and acted out several stories. After the session, students who initially felt shy or had never acted in front of an audience felt more at ease and confident. The goal, says González-Hernández, “is to establish long-term partnerships with high schools around Atlanta to create a more transformative pedagogical experience.”

“These interactions promote other modes of expression, communication, cooperation and teamwork, fostering an appreciation of theater and the arts by using Spanish dynamically to trigger other creative processes. In addition, they challenge students’ assumptions and invite a nuanced appreciation of the complexity of the communities,” she says. 

Sophomores had a chance to unlock the riches of Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library in concert with Yami Rodriguez and Arturo Contreras 22C. In 2022, Rodriguez, assistant professor of history, inspired Contreras to expand as a scholar in Latinx studies thanks to a special-topics history class. The result was the first-ever Latinx pop-up exhibit in the Robert W. Woodruff Library last fall — “Consciousness Is Power: A Record of Emory Latinx History.”

“Beginning my morning in the Rose Library with eager 10th-graders and ending the day with musical and dance performances that illustrated the life and vibrancy of Georgia’s Latinx youth, the LYLC’s 24th-annual conference was a testament to how important it is for universities to center the needs of local communities in efforts to create more equitable and inclusive campuses,” Rodriguez reflects. 

Programming and praise for parents and teachers

Recognizing that the educational pipeline requires “insulation” in the form of support for all the people around the student, the conference also featured workshops with teachers and parents.

Cecilia Gómez, associate director of teaching and pedagogy at the CFDE, convened “Exploring Translanguaging Pedagogy: Principles and Practices” for 50 educators. Translanguaging pedagogy plans for the use of all student languages for collaborative learning, with the goal of supporting and expanding the linguistic and cognitive resources of multilingual students.

The topic had great relevance, according to Gómez, who noted that “several of the teachers currently instruct Spanish-speaking, bilingual and even multilingual students and that some are already implementing translanguaging pedagogies in order to support their students’ linguistic identities and create school-to-family-to-community connections.” 

The day included a full set of activities for parents, who were taken on a tour of campus, attended the College and Career Fair and then listened to a panel of students talk about effective parental support for Latinx students in college.

At the closing ceremony, Andino made clear the pivotal role that parents play when he offered a heartfelt tribute to his mother, who was in the audience.

“My mother, Ernestina Bautista, ignited my journey with the Latin American Association two decades ago. Her unwavering support has been my foundation, and I am endlessly grateful for the profound impact she continues to have on my life,” he said.

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