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ORANGE : Giving Future Latino Leaders a Big Push

Meeting at Chapman College on Friday, Latino high school students recognized as leaders by their teachers and counselors were encouraged to overcome financial hurdles and unsupportive social environments in pursuing higher education and careers.

The fourth annual Hispanic Youth Leadership Conference attracted 105 students from the Orange Unified School District. Also, about 30 adults told how they became interested in their jobs and described the education required.

The students listened and added their thoughts about how to face future problems, such as finding the money for college and starting careers. They were encouraged to accept the responsibility of exposing younger siblings to higher education and persuading other students to pursue their dreams.

“I hope there is greater involvement on their part and decision-making in terms of setting goals and reaching others,” said Tom Saenz, director of special programs in the district, who started the district leadership program after participating in a onetime countywide project.

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Students discussed how they were guided to their leadership roles--which people pushed them along, checked their schoolwork and gave them advice.

Art Velasquez, 18, a senior at El Modena High School, credited businessman Sam Rodriguez for encouraging him to pursue a counseling career.

Velasquez, president of his school’s Moviemento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan club, said MEChA also helps him recognize both the importance of the company of other Latinos and his feelings of cultural pride.

MEChA members “opened up new doors for me,” he said. “That’s when college came into my mind. It’s a good feeling not to be ashamed of your race.”

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The students were chosen to attend the conference by showing that they have leadership skills in school clubs and sports. Although many of them are top students, Saenz said, grades were not a selection consideration because language problems may have adversely affected students’ grade-point average.

They have brought themselves to the point where others are looking to them for support and encouragement, said Gloria Buford, a bilingual resource teacher with the school district.

“We hope these students will wake the others up” to opportunities available to them, she said. “We still have a lot of sleepers at school.”

“They’re motivated. They’ll get there,” said Joe R. Castello, a senior account representative for Southern California Edison.

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He said he began as a meter reader for the utility while attending school to earn a business degree.

The students complained about such community problems as gangs, drugs and the large number of high school dropouts. They also saw a big problem in overcoming negative attitudes from others who do not want to see them succeed.

Some students have encountered difficulties on their own that, if not for others encouraging them, may have stopped them from seeking college degrees. Despite the problems, there are tremendous opportunities out there, said Jaime Perez, 17, a senior at Orange High School.

Scholarships for minorities abound, and employers recognize the importance of hiring minorities, he said. “Opportunities are there. You just have to make the best of everything,” he said.

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