Latino Youth Leadership Conference: A 28 Year Legacy

The Latino Youth Leadership Conference was created in early 1994.  My main reason for starting the program was related to the fact that after nine years of awarding hundreds of students one time scholarships of $1,000 and $500 from the Latin Chamber of Commerce Career Day Scholarship Program, where I had served for six years as the Career Day Scholarship Coordinator, only twenty-four percent of the students who had received scholarships were still enrolled in school after their first semester.   Seeking to learn why, I contacted many of the students who had stopped going to college and asked them why they had left.  When asked, students said that they felt intimidated by the university environment, that they were not made to feel welcome, that they did not know any other Latino students on campus, and felt that they were not adequately prepared for what they encountered academically, socially and culturally.  Some of them also said that there was no support system on campus.

It was in response to the students feedback that my friend, Dr. Maria Chairez and I met and began to design the curriculum for the  first Latino Youth Leadership Conference.  At the time, Dr. Chairez and I were both employed as high-level administrators in the Clark County School District. The first conference was designed to: 1) educate students about their Hispanic heritage and culture, 2) increase students leadership skills and knowledge, 3) encourage students to pursue post secondary degrees and provide them with strategies and skills to succeed in college, 4) expose students to college life by lodging them in student dorms and familiarizing them to the university campus, 5) inspire students by exposing them to community leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, politicians, and Hispanic leaders, and, 6) to provide all services to students at no cost to them or their families.

For that first conference, we set a minimum GPA requirement of 2.5.  We also gave points for community and school involvements.  Another important requirement was a written essay telling us about their family life and career aspirations.  We also decided that we needed to obtain parental permission.  As the planning proceeded, it quickly became apparent that it was going to take a lot of money and many volunteers to put on our first conference.  As a result, Maria and I decided to divide duties.  Maria would concentrate on recruiting and training volunteers and I would concentrate on identifying needed committees and fund raising.  We also decided to share duties in planning workshops, and selecting and inviting speakers and workshop presenters.

After much deliberation, we decided that we needed to have 10 conference committees.  They were: Program Planning, Campus Coordination, Fund Raising/Public Relations, Adult Facilitators, Peer Facilitators, Student Volunteers, Printing/Publications, Transportation, Hospitality, and a Banquet Committee.

Our first estimate for putting on the conference was about $12,000, which in 1994 seemed like a lot of money.  Maria and I then arranged a meeting with Dr. Robert Maxson, then the President of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and informed him of our plans for the conference.  After a long conversation, Dr. Maxson shocked both of us by generously agreeing to provide us with $7,500.  Dr. Maxson said that he thought the program was a great idea and that he anticipated that many of the students would want to enroll at UNLV and would be better prepared to succeed in college.  Dr. Maxson also agreed to be a presenter at one of the work shops on leadership.  

To make up the small difference in our budget after Dr. Maxson’s contribution, I composed and sent out a letter to 20 local businesses explaining the purpose of the conference and offered to provide contributors advertising space in the conference program.  As it turned out we received contributions from 18 different businesses and individual donors.  A few of the larger donors included Bank of America, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mirage Resorts, Nevada Education Association, Central Telephone of Nevada, and U. S. Bank.  Ultimately, we were able to raise $15,500, and the first Latino Youth Leadership Conference was a go.

For the theme of the first conference, Maria and I chose “Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today.”  The dates for the first three day conference were Friday, June 10, 1994, with an end date of Sunday, June 12, 1994.

By design, the 32 students enrolled in the first conference were housed in the student dorms  at UNLV for the entire conference and ate their meals in the campus dining commons.  Other design features included workshops on “How to Survive Your First Year of College,” “Roots, Family, History,” “Growing Up Latino/a,” “The Nuts and Bolts of Leadership,” “What is a Leader, and What Makes for Effective leadership,”The Need for Leadership In the Latino Community,” “How To Form Study Groups, How To Use the Library, and How to Get Good Grades,” and “What is Financial Aid and How Do You Get It.“

Perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of that first conference was that the students formed what would become lasting friendships with other Latino students who they could turn to for support and encouragement when they arrived on campus.  Those friendships, as much or more than anything else, helped to keep those students on campus until graduation.  Participants began as strangers and left the conference with a large network of contacts and a support group that served as an extended family.

To ensure that bonding among students takes place during the conference, all participants are placed in “Familias.”  Familias consist of 9-10 participants and 2 Peer Facilitators per familia.  Peer Facilitators undergo a highly selective screening process and year long training.  Peer facilitators are the key to creating the essential bonding that takes place each year among the various familias.

Today, the LYLC remains a residency-based program that now takes place over six days and five nights at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with daylong sessions at the College of Southern Nevada and the Nevada State College.  Approximately, 80-90 youth participate each summer.  The conference is coordinated by over 25 youth alumni under the direction of  a Conference Coordinator and adult facilitators. Funding for the program now averages about $85,000 per conference, which includes living in the dorms, all meals, luncheons, a graduation banquet, and facilities fees.

In 1998, the fourth year of the conference, the first Latino Youth Leadership Alumni Group was formed under the mentorship of Dr. Maria Chairez.  Currently, the Alumni are their own non-profit organization and they remain a strong and vibrant piece of the Latino Youth Leadership Conference. Its members play an essential role each year in ensuring the success of the conference.

In 2015, a Parent Orientation Session was introduced and all of the parents of the students attending the conference were encouraged to attend and participate in workshops designed to provide them with information on the goals of the conference and how they can become more involved in the education of their children.

The 2020 Latino Youth Leadership Virtual Conference

In the summer of 2020, in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, the planners for the 2020 Latino Youth Leadership Conference were faced with the dilemma of whether to go forward with having a conference.  As it turned out, they voted not to hold an onsite conference for 2020.  Instead, under the direction of my good friend, Daniel Tafoya, the former three term Chairman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and the head of the Latin Chamber Community Education Foundation,the LYLC Committee members decided to put on the first LYLC Virtual Conference.  

Understandably, this was not like any previous conference.  The first distance learning conference was held for only 4 days and was tuned into by 60 participants on their computers for 5-6 hours per day.  It was staffed by 19 former alumni, including Marvin Campos, the Conference Coordinator, and funding was obtained from Bank of America and Nevada Energy.  From all of the feedback we received, the first Virtual LYLC conference was a success!

Success Stories

With the conference now it is 28th year of existence, the participants who attended the first ten years of the conference are now in their 30’s and early 40’s.  Most of them have gone to have successful impressive careers.  Among those former students are a former United States Congressman, at least five State Legislators, six medical doctors, many lawyers, several of who have their own practices, many educators to include school administrators, school principals, teachers, and school psychologists, many male and female business owners, political consultants, nurses, hundreds with masters degrees, and a large number with PhD’s from prestigious universities. And the list of successful participants goes on and on.  Of the many alumni I know and talk to on a regular basis, virtually all of them credit the LYLC program with giving them the confidence to succeed in college and credit the program with helping them form friendships that they feel with last a lifetime.  

Historical Perspective

Prior to the first Latino Youth Leadership Conference, there had never been a program in Las Vegas, or in the State of Nevada, whose purpose was to teach young Latino students the essential elements of leadership, or to mentor them on how to assume leadership positions in their high schools and colleges.  The Latino Youth Leadership Conference has made it possible for over 1,500 young Latino men and women to learn about their heritage, how to succeed in college, how to navigate the university and college environments, to acquire valuable knowledge on the art of leadership, and given them all an opportunity to bond with similarly minded young Latinos, many of who will remain friends for the rest of their careers and lives.  

My Legacy

As one of the two Co-Founders of the Latino Youth Leadership Conference, I believe that my legacy lies in the progress that has been made among Latino youth.  Over the past 28 years, the Latino Youth Leadership Conference has served over 1,500 young Latinos, the majority of who have gone on to attend college and earn their degrees.  Many of those former attendees eventually took over the operation of the conference which was something that both Maria Chairez and I wanted to happen when we started it.  Personally, I can’t think of a better legacy that I could leave than to know that the conference has had such a positive and dramatic impact on the lives of so many young Latinos.  God willing, in future years it will continue to make a difference in the lives of many thousands more who will attend the conference and go on to make valuable contributions to our city, state and nation.  That truly is a legacy worth treasuring.

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