This time a year ago, Ricardo Nazario-Colón, Western Carolina University’s chief diversity officer, and his graduate assistant, Kevin Trudell, took 10 WCU students to the 28th annual National Latino Collegiate Conference at the University of Albany.
As they were returning to Cullowhee, traveling on I-81 south in the middle of the night, someone blurted out, “We need to have our own conference.” The van erupted into cheers. For the rest of the ride, the students began brainstorming and dishing out assignments.
Fast-forward a year later, and those conversations came to fruition. WCU successfully hosted the inaugural Southeastern Latinx Student Leadership Conference April 12-14 at the University Center. The conference, believed to be the first of its kind in the region, was presented by WCU’s Latino Appreciation Student Organization with support from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs.
The goal of the conference was to develop a student identity for the Latinx community, empowering them to own their experience in college, to claim their space, to claim their universities as part of the experience and to feel like they belong, Nazario-Colon said.
“Students created this,” Nazario-Colón n quickly points out. “It is their idea, their desire to have something that speaks to them. That’s important to empower our future alums. I’m really excited that they saw this gap and wanted to fill it up.”
Nazario-Colón served as the group’s adviser, but it was the students who took the reins, led by senior Jenifer Montoya Velasquez, who would eventually become the committee chair. Upon returning from the conference at Albany, Montoya Velasquez, who was born in Honduras and raised in Hickory, immediately went to see Linda Snyder in the Department of Campus Activities.
“I said, ‘We’re having a conference and we’re booking the whole UC,’ ” Montoya Velasquez said.
Initially, they looked at inviting colleges and universities within a two-hour driving radius of WCU. But, after doing some research on what other student leadership conferences focusing on Latino students were offered in the area, they discovered that the only one in the entire Southeast region was in Florida. So, the group began looking at extending their invitations outside of the initial two-hour radius.
The students relied on email and social media to spread the word about the conference. On social media, Montoya Velasquez said they followed about 200 collegiate groups that were the equivalent of WCU’s LASO, and began sending them direct messages.
“Those students reached out to their advisers and that’s how everything started happening,” she said. “It was literally word of mouth. It wasn’t like we were televising it.”
The group met with WCU’s Office of University Marketing to design a website. The first school to show interest was UNC Wilmington. Then, the first 10 students to register were from Guilford College. Along the way, they have forged relationships with Latino/Hispanic students at various institutions, relationships that didn’t exist before, Montoya Velasquez said.
Including 52 WCU students who registered, about 175 attended the conference. In addition to UNC Wilmington and Guilford, students from Appalachian State, N.C. Central, the University of Tennessee, UNC Pembroke, UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte and UNC Asheville were in attendance.
“That’s huge for the university because it’s showing that the need is there,” Montoya Velasquez said. “Students want to partake in this. People came on Thursday. People did not come in on Friday, and that shows people really wanted to come to these workshops and wanted to learn how they can become better students and how they can apply this to their institutions.”
The students selected “Maximizing Nosotros: Empowering Latinx Students for Success” as the event theme. Within that, there are three conference tracks students can choose from – “Owning Our Values,” “Challenging Ourselves” and “Claiming Our Roots.”
“We chose those three because I feel like as we grow up in the American society, we forget where we came from,” Montoya Velasquez said.
The entire process of planning and putting on a conference was a valuable learning experience for the students, one that didn’t always go smoothly, said freshman Andrea Romero Dugarte of Winston-Salem.
“I really was hesitant for a long time,” she said. “It was really inspiring to see the students come together and work to put this conference together, starting out with very little. But we’ve received so much support to make it possible. It’s really been eye-opening. I’ve learned a lot from the process. I know we’ll take a lot of what we’ve learned from our experience this year for the following years.”
The students learned how to enter into contractual conversations with presenters, and develop relationships with campus departments like catering and campus activities, and were actively involved in fundraising. They hired a student graphic designer, who developed logos to be used for the next 20 years, as well as a student photographer.
To raise money, they had a percentage night at South of Philly in Sylva where they received a percentage of the proceeds. They held a dance and hosted a Valentine’s Day photo booth. They also put together proposals to receive money from WCU’s Campus Theme Committee and the Student Government Association.
“SGA was blown out of the water,” Montoya Velasquez said. “When we went to ask for money, they were like, ‘This is the best presentation we have ever seen. You guys are so professional. You had your thoughts well put together.’ They asked us like 15 different questions and they were so amazed at how organized and prepared we were.”
The group also received sponsorships from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and Technology, Campus Activities and the Department of Residential Living. In addition, various departments across campus sponsored scholarships for students to attend.
In addition to the workshops, comedian Franciso Ramos performed. Ramos has appeared on HBO and Comedy Central and was a top 10 finalist on “Last Comic Standing” in 2015.
The keynote speaker was Jose Hernandez, a retired chief diversity officer and associate vice president for the University of South Florida. The conference concluded with an awards show on Sunday.
The group hopes this was the first of many conferences. In addition, they hope it shows prospective Latino/Hispanic students that WCU is an inviting place.
“I think it’s important for students coming to this campus to see that we do support our Latino community,” Romero Dugarte said. “We want to empower them and provide a sense of belonging and a lot of guidance for their futures.
They already have begun looking ahead at ways to ensure the conference continues. They are in the early stages of exploring ways to establish an endowment, Nazario-Colón said.
“It’s been amazing just seeing the ideas,” he said. “There’s a generational gap in how I, as an administrator who likes to think I have always been on the cutting edge of things, they surpassed me. The amount of work they do, the energy, how quickly they get things. It’s just been amazing to watch them be engaged and feel part of a much larger world.
“Another part the students really didn’t think of, they are involved at a very high level in the economic impact of our region,” he added. “By creating this conference and bringing in all of these individuals from outside our region, they have impacted the hotel industry, the restaurant industry, the retail industry, without knowing and without intentionally thinking about it. That positions our university in a much better light as a major employer and as an anchor to our region. I think they deserve kudos for that. I’m very proud of them.”
From a discussion in the back of a van to hosting Latino/Hispanic students from across the Southeast, WCU students saw what success looks like.
“It’s like a dream come true because we kept talking about it,” Montoya Velasquez said. “To see that we were able to put this all together, it’s going to set the tone and allow students to say, ‘I can do anything and everything that I want to do on a campus.’ As long as we’re committed and motivated, then we can make it happen.”