National conference motivates NEIU students to strive for leadership roles

Cecilia G. Hernandez, Writer

Thirty-one NEIU students and volunteers attended the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute conference, a four-day national conference focused on empowering the Latinx community through workshops and keynote speakers, on Feb. 15 through the 18.

Over 6,500 present and future leaders, who represented 40 states, talked about their experiences fighting for equality and their successes. The workshops aim to teach the participants how to “strengthen their leadership skills and become better servant leaders,” according to the USHLI website.

During the USHLI conference, junior student Yadira Alonzo was the only NEIU student who received the Dr. Juan Andrade Jr. Scholarship for Young Hispanic Leaders. As an undocumented Latina and DACA recipient, Alonzo said one of her biggest challenges is being able to afford her education.

Alonzo said, “I feel very honored and privileged to have received this scholarship. It not only brings me financial relief, but it also brings me hope.”

Student Leadership Development student intern and senior group leader Alfredo Palafox said the best part of USHLI for him was seeing the students before and after.

“The after is like, ‘Alfredo, what kind of clubs can I join? What can I do for community service, for volunteering?’ Because they want action already,” Palafox said. “I love that. It’s kind of like a spark ignited.”

Being an undocumented student, Palafox said it’s inspiring to see and talk with Latinos who are CEOs, presidents or people with Ph.Ds because “we as Latinos and Latinas do not see that a lot.

“Seeing someone who doesn’t have a social security number, who has brown skin or was a first-generation student with a low-income rise to a leadership position motivates our students because they’re like, ‘Oh, my god! Maybe I can do that too,’” Palafox said.

President of the NEIU Colony of Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Omar Castro said, “(USHLI) is where students get inspired to do more for the community, to reach out to students so they can become leaders and not followers.”

Castro is a junior student who went as a volunteer in Palafox’s group to USHLI. He attended once before and helped Palafox spread the information for the application process through Facebook and by word-of-mouth marketing.

“Something that I learned through this conference is that you can’t help others unless you help yourself first,” Castro said. “I need to be open-minded and go for what I believe in, and to never feel inferior to anyone.”

Junior student John Rayburn found USHLI as “an opportunity to network” and saw the intersectionality of the Black and Latinx communities.

Rayburn said two of the memorable keynote speakers for him were Sylvia Mendez and Dolores Huerta. Mendez was denied access to a school due to her heritage at age 8, so her parents fought and won the court case of Mendez v. Westminster in 1946 that desegregated schools in California. Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez.

“Listening to their story and seeing how they are, I pictured myself within like the next five to six years, being one of them as well,” Rayburn said. “Although I am Black and Native American, I felt like I fit in this crowd because we’re all fighting for rights and a better outcome. I consider myself Afro-Latino because I see that we’re brothers and sisters.”

Senior student Jannedh Lema said she loved being a volunteer this year because she felt more appreciated and got to meet the speakers, specifically Mendez and Huerta.

“It was tiring,” Lema said while laughing. “This is my third year going and I noticed that this year was more towards empowering women. (Mendez and Huerta’s) stories about battling sexism, like they still went ‘contracorriente’ (against waves), it was motivating. Like we can do it, we have to fight for equality.”

Freshman student Mireya Alvarez went as a participant in the USHLI conference and said, “I thought it was good exposure for how we should behave in a professional setting and to manage your time within the days you’re there. I really thought (the workshops) were helpful for anyone in any major who need to learn how to brand and present themselves.”

Alvarez said she learned the importance of being punctual since only a limited number of people were allowed in each workshop at a time.

“I am convinced that USHLI is a good experience for any student who attends because it is a life-changing experience,” Alonzo said. “(Mendez) inspired me to follow my dreams and not let any obstacles get in the way of my success.”

Palafox said he was able to take 11 volunteers and 20 students to the USHLI conference this year with the help of Student Leadership Development, Phi Iota Alpha and Dr. Francisco Gaytan with the ENLACE program at NEIU.

Students who are interested in attending USHLI must fill out and submit an application, opened usually at the end of the fall semester. Palafox can answer questions regarding the USHLI conference and application via email at [email protected].

The Dr. Juan Andrade Jr. Scholarship for Young Hispanic Leaders scholarship application is online in the USHLI website but is not currently accepting submissions for the 2019 school year. It’s open for any student who has a parent of Hispanic ancestry and is attending a two-year college or four-year university. Applicants do not need to be U.S. citizens to apply.