Latinx student leaders explore career options, build networks at national conference

  • May 22, 2024
  • David Leder

When college students have an opportunity to spend time around successful professionals with similar life experiences, they often see new possibilities for themselves.

The annual United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI) National Conference in Chicago provides Hispanic and Latinx college students with a firsthand look at what their futures might be like.

Manuel Rodriguez, Central Washington University’s Director of Early College Outreach and Campus Visits, views the annual conference — regarded as the premier cross-generational leadership event in the nation — as essential to the development of young leaders.

“One of the reasons we attend this conference every year is to help create a support network on campus for students from similar backgrounds,” said Rodriguez, who accompanied a group of 24 students to the 41st annual USHLI National Conference from February 14-18.

“They encourage each other and push each other, talking about their professional and personal goals,” he added. “They also build a sense of community that allows them to be successful, which is great to see.”

Group photo of USHLI participants

CWU has been sending student groups to Chicago since 2016, including 11 last year. This year’s delegation, which included six of Rodriguez’s colleagues, was more than twice as large as the one in 2023, and it showed how much interest — and passion — exists across campus.

“Opportunities like this are rare, so I wanted to be sure to take advantage,” said Gerardo Castillo, a junior Apparel, Textiles and Merchandising (ATM) major who also serves as an ASCWU officer. “This conference gave us a chance to connect with people from our own communities — people who look like us who have gone on to accomplish amazing things. I came away with a different view of our generation and our people.”

Senior Melissa Lopez-Barbosa attended USHLI for the second time in February and said she gained a new level of confidence this year. She talked about the benefits of interacting with established Latinx leaders and other college students from across the country.

“It was a great opportunity to connect with our peers and share ideas about how we are making a difference in our own way,” said Lopez-Barbosa, a senior Information Technology and Administrative Management (ITAM) major. “It was interesting to hear about other people’s goals and how we can work toward them together.”

She added that, for her, the best part of the conference were the endless networking opportunities.

“I figured that any opportunity to shake someone’s hand would benefit me, so whenever I was standing in line next to someone, I would just say ‘hi,’” she said. “I knew that every interaction I made was going to allow me to create connections with others that would last beyond the conference.”

Group photo of USHLI participants

Career-Altering Experiences

Social services major Laura Ramirez experienced a similar revelation through the many connections she made at USHLI — one, in particular, that may have altered her career path.

She plans to go to law school after she graduates from CWU, but until she met with USHLI Board Chairman John Haroldson Suárez, she wasn’t sure what direction her legal career might take. Haroldson Suárez showed Ramirez that she may be able to make more of an impact as a prosecutor than as a defense attorney.

“Being an immigrant myself, I thought I wanted to become an immigration attorney so I could help people like me,” said Ramirez, a transfer student who moved to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 11 years old.

“But after I talked about it more with Mr. Haroldson, I started to consider practicing law on the side of power so I can help enforce the laws more equitably,” she continued. “A lot of immigrants get left behind, and I learned that I may be able to make more of a difference as a prosecutor.”

Ramirez talked about how the immigrant community is often disadvantaged by the legal system, and how difficult it is for people who don’t speak English to receive equal representation. Hearing about Haroldson Suárez’s own experiences as a district attorney helped Ramirez realize the potential benefits of going the prosecutorial route.

“Our immigration system is broken, and minoritized people aren’t represented as they should be,” she said. “Mr. Haroldson helped me understand that by being on the power side — with the experiences that my community is living through every day — I could give them a voice that they don’t currently have. It’s important for people like me to occupy those positions of power so we can advocate for our communities and offer a more sympathetic approach to immigration.”

Small group photo at USHLI

Like Ramirez, Castillo left USHLI with a fresh perspective on where he might choose to take his career. While he is passionate about many aspects of the ATM field, he discovered that his future may reside in business.

After attending a workshop presented by former General Motors business manager Diana Ortega, Castillo emerged with a renewed outlook on his future.

“I’m at a crossroads for where I want to take my career, and Ms. Ortega’s presentation was really eye-opening for me,” he said. “I feel like it may have been one of those life-changing moments.”

Castillo said he has been looking at ways to combine his supply chain knowledge and management skills with his manufacturing and design training to chart a new path.

“A lot of what I have learned in ATM would apply to my new career direction, but it would also require me to stay in school a little longer,” Castillo said. “I’m looking at some different possibilities and starting to explore some graduate school options. If I go that route, it would all come back to my conversations with Diana Ortega.”

Group photo of USHLI participants in front of a tour bus 

Learning Leadership Skills

In addition to building their professional networks and evaluating their career prospects, the CWU students who attended the USHLI National Conference also came away with enhanced leadership skills that they can put into practice on campus and in their careers.

Ramirez learned that by finding her own niche, she can have a tremendous impact on the world.

“I had a conversation with John Haroldson Suárez and his wife, and they told me how important it is to find your own specific leadership style,” Ramirez said. “When you’re in an environment where most people are from different cultural backgrounds, you have to seek out different ways to represent your small group. Every action you take makes a difference, and this conference helped us realize that we all have what it takes to be leaders.”

Castillo added that the USHLI national conference showed him and his Latinx peers that they truly can accomplish anything they put their minds to.

“We got to see firsthand that people of color are making a huge impact on the world, and that was very empowering,” he said. “It feels good to know that we are making a difference, and there’s an entire army of us who are trying to do the same thing.”

Lopez-Barbosa said she returned to Ellensburg with a renewed drive in being a leader in the Latinx community. She feels like the connections she made this year gave her another huge advantage as she pursues a career in cybersecurity.

“I got more out of this year’s conference because I knew how to make connections with people I had never met,” she said. “This year, I left with a feeling that I want to become more involved in building up my community. I realized that I have the tools and the knowledge to be an influential leader for people who come from the same background as we do.”

Similarly, Ramirez walked away from USHLI with a heightened sense of self-confidence and a belief that she can be successful no matter which direction she ends up going.

“This conference gave me the lift and the power I needed to say, ‘my experiences matter, I matter, and what I think matters.’ I came away knowing that what I want to pursue matters, and that my voice matters. But, most importantly, we learned that, as a community, we are stronger than we are as individuals.”

Rodriguez explained that, for the USHLI conference to have a similar impact on future CWU students, he would like to see the university dedicate more financial resources to ensure that this trip can happen every year.

He explained that prior to the pandemic, funding for the conference used to come from student activities fees. But the past two years, the group has had to raise money from various campus partners, including University Advancement, Student Engagement and Success, the President’s Office, the Office of the Registrar, and others.

“We would love to see the university institutionalize this opportunity for our young Hispanic and Latinx leaders because it really is a career- and life-altering experience for them,” Rodriguez said. “It would be great if the USHLI conference could become part of a longer vision that is seen as vital to preparing our students for life after they graduate.”

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