More than 70 Hispanic Emporia High School students were introduced to resources available to help them succeed in higher education Thursday, as part of Emporia State University’s recognition of Cesar Chavez Day.
This is the first time ESU has offered an event that exposes Hispanic high school students and their families to higher education opportunities using specific tools to meet their needs.
Emporia State junior Ana Valdez Saravia, originally from La Paz, Bolivia, created the program as part of her Honors College community engagement project.
“It all started with a conversation I had with Dr. [Gary] Wyatt, who is the dean of the honors college,” she told The Gazette Thursday morning.
A dual major in communications and sociology, Valdez Saravia is also president of ESU’s Hispanic American Leadership Organization, which she says works to promote culture and provide a safe space for Hispanic students at the university.
“Having this conversation with Dr. Wyatt got me thinking about how we can increase and really help Hispanic students at Emporia pursue higher education,” Valdez Saravia said. “It is something that concerns us. What are the reasons why these children do not go to university? What challenges do they face?
Cultural and financial issues can be major barriers, she said, as well as fears associated with coming from an undocumented family. As an international student, some of these issues became more apparent once she arrived at Emporia.
“I feel like I really have a sense of what it means to be Hispanic or Latina because since I got here,” she said. “Back home, I was mostly in the same environment, but when I came here, it was the first time I realized that people like me, we really represent a small group sometimes. I really felt more encouraged to connect more deeply with my roots than before.
She also looked for ways to help the local community provide them with the same kinds of opportunities she had.
“I was able to come here and have an education and I want them to have that too,” Valdez Saravia said.
“We decided to partner with Emporia High School and work with their migrant education coordinator, Patricia Saenz Reyes, and we started building this project together,” Valdez Saravia said. “We wanted to target the challenges we face.”
Knowing that language can be a significant barrier, programming was offered in English and Spanish on Thursday, with portable translation devices available. EHS students were able to ask questions of four current ESU students – Tom Torres, Amaya Oshel, Alaina Lopez and Marisleysis Velasquez – and explore the different areas of study available to them at the university. They were also able to visit various recognized student organizations.
Bringing such an event to campus on Cesar Chavez Day was no accident.
Chavez was an American labor leader and civil rights activist who brought about significant change for migrant workers and farmers. With Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later merged with the Farm Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers union.
Chavez, who graduated through eighth grade, was a U.S. Navy veteran and a big proponent of education.
Saenz-Reyes, along with Sally Sanchez, Concha Dikin and Vilma Loveall explained the significance of Cesar Chavez Day and shared their own memories of the changes he brought to the Hispanic community.
“He meant a lot to a lot [of people]”Sanchez said. “Especially Latinos.”
Saenz-Reyes said she was “proud” of Chavez’s legacy.
“I was proud to hear what a Hispanic person has done for the community,” she said. “It’s a great pride.”
Sanchez shared the story of his own family who immigrated to Southern California when he was 12 so his family could earn money as farmhands. She remembers listening to music on a small transistor radio powered by 9-volt batteries as if they were water.
It was a lot of work. And it turned out his father had a plan to show Sanchez and his siblings that they could do better than work in a field.
“That was the plan my dad had in mind,” she tearfully said.
Dikin said she came to the United States with her parents and brother as undocumented immigrants from Mexico. His parents left behind the two youngest children for a year.
“We didn’t speak English; I didn’t speak English,” she said. “My parents sacrificed a lot to come to the United States.”
Dikin and his brother, Dr. Sam Tovar, spent a day trying to help their parents earn more money by picking asparagus with another family.
“We want to contribute to the family,” she said. “We went with another family and for 10 hours we worked very, very hard. We won $18 which we were able to give to my mom and dad.”
Valdez Saravia said ESU Admissions waives application fees for all seniors who attended Thursday’s event. She hopes to expand her reach next year.
“Maybe next year I can start partnering with other schools that also have a Hispanic population,” she said. “They can also have the same opportunity to come in and have a little more understanding of what college is and have the tools that we want to give them.”