Inside USD

USD Hosts NHI Leadership-Building Program

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When Nicole Nieto de Sada, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), states “essentially one in three Americans will be of a Spanish-speaking background by 2050,” it is delivered without any hesitation in her voice.

No one in the room dwells on this statistic or asks her to repeat it. Acceptance is swift and explains exactly why NHI staff, volunteers and 105 rising high school junior and seniors representing eight U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Mexico, are on the University of San Diego campus this week.

“We’re trying to make sure that our American heritage is preserved, that we have plenty of people engaged in community causes,” Nieto de Sada says. ”That’s one of the great things about the United States of America. By injecting a civic responsibility and civic leadership into the growth of young people we believe we can have a social impact.”

Through June 29, the NHI is hosting a leadership-building conference, the Lorenzo de Zavala (LDZ) Youth Legislative Session, at USD. It’s one of five LDZ this summer across the U.S. and one internationally in Panama City, Panama.

Started in 1983, the LDZ provides students the chance to envision themselves as part of the future leadership of a 21st century Latino community. Students go through a campaign and election process to claim roles of power such as governor, lieutenant governor, senator and Supreme Court justice. Legislative sessions and court trials take place, providing optimal experiential education.

“We teach three core values: will, having faith in self and in your community, and imagination,” Nieto de Sada says.

The LDZ is part of NHI’s three-step process for students during their high school years: Rising sophomores attend a conference called the Great Debate. After the LDZ, seniors participate in the Collegiate World Series. Each delivers valuable self-discovery opportunities.

“It provides students an environment to experiment, find their voice and, for some, to come out of their shell a bit,” says Olivia Travieso, education director for the California LDZ. “They learn how to interact with other people, learn to manage, learn how to be in a position of influence and power, and to be comfortable speaking into a microphone. Students gain confidence to make their voices heard.”

NHI’s arrival to the USD campus is a wise discovery. A multi-year agreement with NHI is now in place through a collaborative effort between the Provost’s Office, Admissions Office, School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) and the Office of Student Affairs, but the initial seeds of this partnership were planted by a USD graduate alumnus.

Andres Bernal ‘13 (MA, Leadership Studies), was an associate education director for NHI while he was attending SOLES. He took the initiative to meet with USD undergraduate admission officials about the value of NHI and its mission. USD Provost Andy Allen and Student Affairs Vice President Carmen Vazquez believed in the importance of hosting NHI at USD and they were able to provide the resources to make it happen.

Leadership Studies Professor Cheryl Getz, EdD, also director of USD’s undergraduate leadership minor, learned about NHI and saw the positive impact it could have on USD’s future.

“I’m so happy NHI is finally on our campus,” says Getz, who will speak to LDZ students on Saturday. “A lot of people had to step up to make it happen. NHI is an incredible organization that empowers young Latino/a students to take on leadership roles in their schools, organizations and communities. Many students go on to make valuable civic contributions at local, state and national levels. Besides skill development, NHI staff help students reflect on who they are and what they value. It’s similar to the work that we do in our leadership minor. This partnership between NHI and USD demonstrates our ongoing commitment to supporting Latino/a youth and their development as future leaders. I look forward to some of these young people becoming part of our leadership minor one day.”

Michelle Camacho, PhD, USD department chair and professor of sociology, also praises the partnership. Camacho gave a speech to LDZ participants at the June 22 kickoff. “I offered to give the speech because, as I see it, the NHI program provides USD with a direct channel to emerging leaders from Latino/a communities across the country,” Camacho said. “The aim is to create a spark and a connection between potential students and foster the pipeline between the best and brightest Latino/a youth and USD.”

Camacho spoke about the importance of reflection to fully understand one’s experiences. She provided a personal narrative about persistence: “I recommended they find what ignites their passions and pursue those paths with soulfulness and intention. I told them about meeting Cesar Chavez as an undergraduate and that I was engaged in work with the United Farm Workers. Those early experiences taught me that fighting for social justice is not always easy nor popular, but that it is worth the effort.”

Though the focus is on high school student development, Aaron Rivera-Dominguez (pictured, right), a USD senior philosophy major and leadership minor, is equally engaged. He learned about NHI through Bernal and he’s in his second year as an LDZ staff volunteer.

“I’m always looking for intellectual conversations and Andres was someone I found I could have this kind of engagement with,” he recalls. “When I got involved with NHI last year (in Colorado), I was so impressed by the level of conversation, academic engagement and intellectual rigor in the high school students. They were conversing about politics, resources, philosophy. It was something I’d never seen before.”

Rivera-Dominguez’s staff role is a learning experience, too. Unlike most, he’s not a former student participant. The program’s desire for students to navigate and shape their own identity is respected and staff members understand because they’ve been through it, too.

“Most staff are former participants so they’re given a lot of room to take initiative and shoulder the responsibility,” he said. “Staff aren’t really told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. They’re expected to figure things out on their own because, to an extent, they understand the purpose of this program.”

His senior counselor role is important, but not so much because of what he tells students to do, but rather, as Travieso describes it, “they learn how to guide students without giving them the answers. It’s more about posing questions that can lead students to their own realization, to figure out their own journey.”

But Rivera-Dominguez, who attended high school in Mexico, is a valuable resource. He’s living his journey, too. The academic interests he had entering USD, such as marine biology, English and philosophy, have been greatly enhanced.

“I came here and found professors who were completely absorbed, they submerged themselves in their discipline and tranmitted that love to me,” he says, mentioning Philosophy’s Brian Clack, Theology and Religious Studies’ Louis Komjathy and recent Leadership Studies PhD graduate Crystal Dujowich, who taught a leadership minor course. “My (academic) interests have been multiplying every semester. And I think that interest would multiply even faster if our university had more students like the ones participating in NHI. These students are hungry; these students can’t get enough, can’t learn enough.”

Learning today, ready to be leaders in the near future.

– Ryan T. Blystone

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