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FLC Latino, first-gen students dream big after national Hispanic conference in Chicago
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FLC Latino, first-gen students dream big after national Hispanic conference in Chicago

Scanning the conference room at the Sheraton Chicago Riverwalk in Chicago, Fort Lewis College junior Saul Cortez was thrilled to see people from similar backgrounds as him in leadership roles at this year’s United States Hispanic Leadership Institute National Conference. 

As a first-generation Latino student living in a small rural town in Colorado, the FLC junior was inspired by the stories of fellow first-generation students who became highly successful in their industry or field.“To see others like myself who are first generation that also have a goal of attaining higher education was very inspiring to me as a way to look for something more,” said Cortez, an accounting major and president of Club del Centro. The FLC club promotes cultural diversity at the College through food, social, and educational events.

College wasn’t an option for his parents, so Cortez had to figure out things like financial aid and how to pay for college on his own. 

“A lot of us first-gen students are learning as we go and trying to figure all this out,” he said. 

In a society where representation not only mirrors reality but also shapes dreams and aspirations, it is more important than ever for college students to see themselves reflected in present and future leaders, said Gyana Bandy Gomar, assistant director for FLC’s El Centro de Muchos Colores, which serves as a resource for anyone interested in the Hispanic culture.

“This conference allows them to see people from their own background in leading roles, whether in politics or at corporations,” she said Gomar, who attended the USHLI conference with eight FLC students earlier this month. "To hear people’s stories, who are relatable to them or their families, is really impactful.”

Held for the first time 40 years ago, the conference brings together more than 4,000 participants and a diverse community of students, educators, and young professionals from more than 30 states. 

“They get to see Latinos being empowered and they get to see they, too, can make a difference,” said Gomar. “For students to see they’re represented by trailblazers doing the work, it shows they can rise up and make a difference.” 

Among the speakers were well-known Latinos from all walks of life, including Pepe Serna, an actor and filmmaker known for his role in the movie "Scarface," Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers Union, and Rebecca S. Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest professional employee organization for educators, students, and workers in public education.

Gomar said one of her favorite speakers was Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, who was born in Mexico and, at the age of 19, crossed over to the United States and became a migrant farm worker.

Quiñones-Hinojosa saved enough money for his education and eventually was accepted into the University of California-Berkeley and then received a medical degree from the Harvard Medical School. Now, Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is the William J. and Charles H. Mayo Professor and Chair of Neurologic Surgery and conducts science research at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Cortez said that attending the conference reinforced an ambition within him, inspiring him to set his sights higher and dream bigger regarding his goals.  

“A lot of those speakers have the same background as me,” he said, “They were first generation, got to college, and didn't know what they were doing or what to expect. But they figured it out, and now they’re doing well. I would say that is something I want for myself.”   

Kristy Martinez, a senior majoring in business administration, said she, too, was inspired by the stories of first-generation students.  

“It helped me think more about my future, what I want to be, and how I can get there,” she said. “And that's a powerful message.”

Gomar said all eight students who attended the conference are “officers” within their respective clubs – Club del Centro and the First Generation College Student Club – and are tasked with being leaders for their cultures and putting on events on campus.

“Now, they can implement those tools and skills they learned at the conference in their current roles on campus and continue to be leaders in the areas they have already been leaders in,” Gomar said.

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