Students reach summit

Freedom New Mexico photo: Karl Terry Tommy Vallejos, director of the Hispanic Organization for Progress and Education, addresses the audience at the Latino Leadership Summit at Eastern New Mexico University Friday. Vallejos said his life was transformed when he joined the Army and later whe

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

In its third year at Eastern New Mexico University, the theme for the Latino Leadership Summit was Si-se puede, a Spanish phrase that translates to, “Yes, I can.”

When summit organizers Diego Espinoza and Nathan Padilla graduated from ENMU in 2006, they had to answer the question of whether they would let the summit die. Their emphatic answer: No, we can’t.

“It’s one of the events we couldn’t let go of because it’s such an asset to the community,” Espinoza said at the conclusion of the event on ENMU’s campus. “The students love it and learn so much.”

About 350 high school students from Clovis, Portales, Roswell and other New Mexico cities attended for motivational speakers and information on higher education opportunities at ENMU or elsewhere.

“You may not know what you want to be when you get here,” said Padilla, who is now doing graduate studies at ENMU’s Roswell campus, “but just get here.”

A little more than three years ago, ENMU President Steven Gamble asked Espinoza and Padilla how the school could address drops in Hispanic enrollment. The summit was their answer.

Espinoza, now a liason for U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., estimated 90 percent of attending students had never been on a college campus before, so the goal was to motivate and educate them to get back onto one.

Sessions included lessons on grants and scholarship, and Latino speakers who shared their stories of success. Speakers included:
• Pastor Tommy Vallejos, a Roswell native and director of the Hispanic Organization for Progress and Education
• Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. Legalization Director Mirna Torres, a Lovington native
• Fifth Judicial District Judge Freddie Romero from Roswell

“They literally came from nowhere,” Espinoza said. “They came up from ground zero and they’re at the top of their games.”

When students ask Clovis High School Spanish teacher Ana McElrath what they would get out of the summit, she points to the influence those speakers can have in their speeches and question and answer sessions.

“We can tell them it’s important to see role models,” McElrath said. “Sometimes it’s hard (for students) to imagine they can do those things.”

Patricia Natividad, also a Spanish teacher at CHS, said having New Mexico natives as speakers brings those points home.

Padilla said one obstacle Latino students face is that higher education may require them to be away from a strong family unit.

“The Latino culture is very family oriented,” Padilla said, “but sometimes that can be a hindrance.”

In situations like those, Padilla brings up ways students can get quality education near their homes. Many want to be doctors, and Padilla reminds them that loans can be forgiven for those who stay and practice in rural New Mexico.

But if they have to leave, McElrath has other advice.

“You go and do what you need to, but you remember (your roots),” McElrath said. “You come back, and you contribute with what you’ve learned.”

Espinoza and Padilla plan to keep the summit going, with next year’s theme as “Make Footprints Worth Following.” The university has given assurances it would keep the summit alive if they or Lambda Theta Phi couldn’t.

“But we’re not letting it go,” Espinoza said.