By Margarita Salas Crespo

Finishing high school is one of the most important educational milestones for first-generation Latino students. Applying for college and experiencing professional and academic success are other milestones on their own.

Attending a predominantly Latino high school, I was barely aware of the importance extracurricular activities had on becoming a successful college student, yet by coincidence or by pure luck, I always found myself involved in something.

One of the most rewarding experiences of my high school career was being part of the Nevada State Gear Up program, a program that prepares low-income students to succeed in postsecondary education.

This program identifies its participants from seventh grade and follows them through high school, exposing students to various academic and leadership development activities. Aside from Gear Up, which is a federal program, there are other programs and organizations of the like that seek to improve our communities’ educational attainment.

One such program is the Latino Youth Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, which is a six-day conference aimed at empowering Latino youth through education and leadership. They work with students between ages 16-18. This program is cost-free due to the generous sponsors who are willing to invest in the youth of the state. Many of our Nevada leaders today are LYLC alumni.

While opportunities like these are available at no cost for our youth, many of them don’t even know that they exist. A Pew Research Center report found that Hispanic undergraduates are much less likely to finish college than Caucasian students.

The stark contrast in their graduation rates was and continues to be accounted for by the differences in their high school preparation and college-entry opportunities. If Latino students lack this information from their high school, they are less likely to get it from anywhere else.

Similarly, for the past few years, UNR’s Latino Student Advisory Board has always participated in the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute’s National Conference, the largest cross-generational Hispanic conference in the nation.

While attending this educational and leadership conference carries large costs, fundraising for it throughout the year was a major goal for LSAB. This year, I had the opportunity to attend the conference as a scholarship recipient of the Dr. Juan Andrade Scholarship for Young Leaders. Aside from providing a wonderful conference to foster leadership skills among Latino and Latino-interested high school and college students, they provide educational scholarships for qualified Latino students.

At USHLI, students have a chance to meet peers from all over the nation with similar interests and ambitions. They also have the opportunity to share valuable information and even their very own stories of empowerment and success.

Leaders in the Latino community are chosen as speakers and presenters at workshops and forums to empower the conference’s attendees through a variety of discussions.

Based on the model of the USHLI Conference and their previous participation in this and other leadership conferences, our own group of Latino and Latino-interested students at the University’s LSAB took it upon themselves to organize an educational leadership conference for students like them in the state of Nevada.

Being able to identify the lack of information and leadership in our own community is how educational advancement for Latinos can begin. We saw the need for something similar to the USHLI Conference for the Latino Student population in the state of Nevada and decided to make it our own project.

The Nevada Latino Leadership Conference, which will take place at the University of Nevada, Reno on April 17 and 18 for college students, is a by-student for-student leadership, civic empowerment, and educational access conference for Latino and Latino-interested high school and college students throughout the state of Nevada. Forums, panels, and empowering speakers will be provided covering topics that are of interest to the Latino, Latino-interested, and underrepresented communities.

The students from LSAB understand the importance of having a conference that provides all students — especially those have been underserved — with the tools and information needed to succeed in college.

Most members of LSAB are first-generation Latino students who have had to overcome tremendous obstacles to make it to where we are today. We understand the struggle faced by first-generation students and we aim to promote success among our community in academia, the professional world and society as a whole.

Underrepresented students should attend conferences to gain leadership and academic development to equip themselves with the skill set needed to prosper in an environment in which few of us exist and thrive. In a state where educational loyalties continue to be divided between the north and south, the Nevada Latino Leadership Conference aims to unify students under a common goal: the advancement of our communities.

Attending a leadership, civic empowerment and educational access conference can enrich a student’s portfolio by equipping them with much-needed leadership skills, networking opportunities and internship and scholarship information that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Margarita Salas Crespo studies anthropology. She can be reached at dcoffey@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.