Hispanic Education Conference gives youth information, inspiration

Motivational speaker Tamara Mena, an immigrant and MJC grad, speaks at the Hispanic Education Conferenceon Saturday.
Motivational speaker Tamara Mena, an immigrant and MJC grad, speaks at the Hispanic Education Conferenceon Saturday.

Powerful stories of perseverance and personal courage brought 500 teens to their feet as the Hispanic Education Conference kicked off at Modesto Junior College. It was a strong start for the day of workshops focused on empowering Latino youths to achieve.

“It plants seeds in our kids, seeds to encourage them to succeed and to give back to the community,” said Jorge Perez, director of parent and community involvement with Modesto City Schools. “There are a lot of former students who are now involved in planning the conference,” he said.

Two former students opened the Saturday conference, now in its 30th year. MJC counselor Leticia Cavazos and professor John Zamora urged busloads of high schoolers from around the county to seize the day. “Opportunity can come knocking at your door. Well, you’re being proactive. You’re going out and knocking at opportunity’s door, because that’s who really succeeds,” Cavazos said.

But success can come in many forms, said speaker Tamara Mena. “Not everything is always going to work out the way you want it,” said the Davis High grad from her wheelchair. “Some things you’ll never have control of. But you can always control the way you’ll face and handle them,” she said.

From a life as a professional model, Mena “had a restart” eight years ago when a car crash broke her spine and killed her longtime boyfriend.

“Is life fair? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what you make of it,” she said.

After months of recovery, regaining her ability to speak, to move her arms and do simple life tasks again, Mena went back to school. She graduated from MJC and California State University, Stanislaus, and began a new career as a motivational speaker.

“Why not reach out for the stars? I’m still here,” she said. “Life is so much more than walking.” But she can do that, too, after a fashion. Despite extensive paralysis, she learned to walk using a prototype exoskeleton and has been featured in publications showcasing the technology. She even learned to dance again, getting a thunderous standing ovation for a gliding rumba performance with You Can Dance Co. instructor Xavier Gomez.

“Don’t let anyone limit your potential, not even yourself,” she told students. “Choose to live a good life.”

A student speaker told of acts of kindness that changed lives. Damaris Esquivel of Enochs High began with the story of a student who stopped a bully, made a friend and saved a life. Her second story was personal. Esquivel said her family lost their home and came to Modesto with almost nothing, living in a car until her father landed a job and found a low-rent apartment. A surprise gift of a new car gave the family a fresh start.

“Do a random act of kindness. The effects are more than you can imagine,” she told the crowd, closing with, “Do it. Just do it. I dare you.”

After the speech, Enochs junior Alexa Prado said hearing Damaris’ story “made us respect her more.”

“We never knew that side of her,” said Enochs senior Marianna Garcia, walking to her first workshop.

Workshop choices spanned gang awareness, college admission, job-search skills, career choices and immigrant rights. MJC counselor Barbara St. Urbain went over state laws giving a measure of protection to undocumented students, including the California Dream Act.

“It lets us come out from the shadows and not be afraid anymore,” said MJC student Mariela Urbina.

Carlos Alvarez, 16, came with friends from Orestimba High in Newman. He planned to check out workshops on financial aid for college, school success tips and “It Could Happen to You,” a safe driving presentation.

Atwater High students said it was their first time at the conference. “I came to see what I could learn,” said Carlos Macias, 18.

“They get career options, an awareness of what’s out there,” said Hughson High teacher Cindy Newsome. Newsome brings students from her Spanish classes, as exposure to Latino culture, and AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program students. “It helps gets them motivated to go on to higher education,” she said.

“There are tons of students out here. Isn’t that wonderful, that so many kids would come on a Saturday?” said Lynn Martin, a Yosemite Community College District Board member. It was Martin’s first time at the conference.

Fellow trustee Linda Flores said she’s come for more than a decade. “It’s just a world of opportunity for students,” Flores said.