On Saturday, CommUNITY en ACCIÓN—a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for the Hispanic community in El Paso—held its eighth annual Young Achievers Forum (YAF) at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).
YAF is an education focused event that gives at-risk sixth-grade students and their families a taste of college for a day.
This year’s keynote address was given by Johnny Samaniego and Thomas Valles, two of the members from the 1987 McFarland High School championship cross country team, of which the Hollywood film starring Kevin Costner, ‘McFarland USA’, is based.
“We want to show that we were once these kids. We came from similar backgrounds and faced similar challenges growing up. But what they need to know is that no dream is too big and that through hard work, determination and the support of family and community they can achieve those dreams,” said Valles.
UTEP and Dr. Diana Natalicio have been key partners of YAF and have hosted the event for eight years in a row.
“UTEP’s strategies to ensure that all students in this region have an opportunity to achieve their dreams begin long before they enter college,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “Our partnership with the Young Achievers Forum enables us to share information about the exciting opportunities on the UTEP campus. Each year, the UTEP team looks very much forward to being part of this energizing event and the opportunity to interact with so many talented young people and their families.”
Parents were highly encouraged to attend the event along with their students. Financial aid workshops and information sessions, in both English and Spanish, were held during YAF ensuring that parents are equipped with the knowledge and resources to help demystify the college and financial aid process.
“Parental involvement has shown to be a key factor in student success,” stated Raymond Palacios, President of Bravo Chevrolet Cadillac and founder of YAF. “Our aim is to create an interactive experience for both the student and the parent; exposing the student to various career paths and giving parents the tools to guide their students long after the conference is over.”
Organizers prepare months in advance to lock in expert speakers and presenters from career fields that are in high demand. The students have an important role of shaping the programming for following years by providing their input at the end of every session.
“Through the years, YAF has built a diverse and compelling presenter list consisting of experts from pharmacologists and aerospace engineers to news anchors and FBI agents,” said Ruben Chavez, this year’s YAF Chair. “We’ve only been able to do this the help of the students.”
In addition to getting their first taste college and touring the campus, students and parents attended hands-on learning and informational sessions covering five broad fields of study: health and medicine; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); business and finance; liberal arts and education; and public safety.
“The interactive career sessions are really the best part of the entire day for these kids,” said said Carmen Perez, CommUNITY en ACCIÓN Member and Partner, Delgado Acosta Spencer Linebarger & Perez Law Firm. “You can see the wonder and excitement in their eyes as they are working as a team to put together a robot. We want to ignite that spark and inspire them to pursue those passions they never knew they had until they experienced it during YAF.”
YAF was created to instill the importance of a higher education in its student attendees and showing them that attaining a college degree is a realistic and tangible goal. Since its inception in 2011, the forum has introduced over 7,000 students across El Paso County to the possibility of a higher education and each year its impact continues to grow in the region.
The program will also take place in Southern New Mexico on February 23, where students will descended onto the New Mexico State University campus to learn more about their post-secondary options.