February 28th through March 2nd 12 Chiawana GEAR UP students from Ochoa Middle School and Chiawana High School attended the annual Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP) Conference in Tacoma, Washington. Led by Site Director Rafael De Leon in partnership with Chiawana Counselor Florentino Barrera, teacher Amanda Ramirez and GEAR UP Academic Instructional Specialist Kasey Manning, students attended the conference with the mission that they would leave feeling empowered and with knowledge of the power of higher education.
Arriving early Thursday afternoon after a long trip from Pasco, students checked-in to Tacoma’s Murano Hotel where the conference was held. They were greeted by LEAP volunteers and staff. After arriving, students listened to opening speaker Leobardo Carmona, a recent high school graduate and high achieving student. Leobardo set the tone for the conference – encouraging students to work hard, despite any adversity, and believe in the opportunity of higher education. Students left the opening ceremony inspired and were invited to attend a variety of workshops such as: “Improving the Educational Systems to be Inclusive of DREAMers,” “Transition for Student to Professional,” and “Be the Solution: Becoming a Change Agent in Your School, Community, and Career” to name a few.
Chiawana students Kimberly Ruesga, Lizette Parra, and Maria Yepez attended a session called “The Power of Digital Storytelling – Creative Ways to be Heard and Create Change.” The students viewed examples and learned techniques to develop their own digital stories. When asked what they thought of the session, they said that it was meaningful. They left the session feeling empowered and encouraged to share their concerns and stories to benefit their communities and peers at Chiawana. Specifically, the students thought of ways they could use their new knowledge to “relieve the pressure on students to do drugs at school.” It was impressive to see students excited to enact positive change.
On Friday, the team traveled to Olympia, along with Ochoa Middle School 8th graders and GEAR UP Site Director Mario Miranda and Student Success Specialist Lidia Torres. In the state capitol students met with local State Representatives Maureen Walsh and Terry Nealy, as well as State Senator Mike Hewitt. Students were encouraged to share their concerns and inform legislators of issues that impact them most in their communities. Students raised concerns on topics including teen pregnancy, state testing and state financial aid for undocumented Washington residents. In addition to meeting with state legislators, students heard from Washington State Governor Jay Inslee as he voiced his support for advancement and empowerment for Latino/a students in Washington State.
After returning to Tacoma for dinner, students were addressed by Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez, the first Mexican-American to serve in his role in the state of Washington. Justice Gonzalez’ speech was focused on encouraging students to pursue higher education as well as to validate Latino contributions and influence in Washington State. After Justice Gonzalez’ address, students enjoyed “Noche Cultural” where students from across the state were invited to celebrate by exhibiting their talents in music, poetry and dance.
The conference ended early Saturday morning with thanks. Students had gained meaningful knowledge of how the state government operates and awareness of how to effectively advocate for themselves, their families and communities. They listened to many people share stories of overcoming adversity and achieving success because of hard work, determination and education – stories similar to what our students experience. From speakers, community leaders and government officials our students were encouraged to advocate for themselves and their communities. GEAR UP students left the conference feeling validated and empowered.
However, the learning did not stop there! Our students took a brief, but powerful look into the University of Washington. Meeting up with former GEAR UP students was great, but, the fact that they were also huge peer mentors was a big plus. Rocio Olivera (Pasco GEAR UP) and Luisa Manzo (Moses Lake GEAR UP) gave our students a tour of campus and discussed the importance of higher education with students. Immediately, this was recognized as a huge academic milestone for all. Conversations revolved around tips and techniques to do well in high school, student life, scholarships, specialized programs and financial aid drove the tone.
By the end of our session, students were asking questions, curious and motivated to head back to Pasco to dominate the classroom setting. Overall the trip was a huge success. Thanks team!