Nearly 300 students from 16 high schools from across Contra Costa County visited Saint Mary's on Thursday, November 4, 2010. The large group, made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors, was on the SMC campus to attend the "Narrowing the Gap" education conference.
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Contra Costa County began holding education conferences for Latino youth ten years ago. This year's gathering focused on Latino students who are part of the millennial generation - which includes those born from the early 1980s up to 2000. With hopes of changing depressing statistics of high dropout rates for Hispanic high school students (23.5% in Contra Costa County), organizers said the purpose of the conference was to expose students to the variety of career possibilities and options available to them if they went on to college.
"It's all about creating awareness," said Ed Basaldua, the president of the chamber. "The goal of this conference is to help these young people learn about the tremendous benefits of pursuing a college education and to make them aware of the resources available right now to make that happen."
Students at the conference received information about financial aid for higher education and listened to a variety of speakers from the fields of education, health care, journalism and telecommunications. Brother Camillus Chavez, who led the students in a meditation exercise, said an essential component of the conference is familiarizing the students with life on a college campus. "Researchers have found that if you demystify something, especially the collegiate experience, just by seeing the place, all of sudden students will see that a college campus is not as awe-inspiring or as frightening as they may have imagined," said Chavez.
Several students at the conference received scholarships. Frances Palacios '94, the project manager for the "Narrowing the Gap" conference said scholarships, ranging from $250 to $1000, were given to five deserving students. The Saint Mary's alumna says the awards are part of efforts by the chamber to encourage students, many of whom are from homes where no one has gone to college. "We don't focus on the obstacles in front of the students," Palacios said. "Our messages are positive. It's all about staying in school and letting them know that there are other people in the community, successful Latino men and women in the business world, that they can talk to and who will help them along the way."
The last time the education conference was held at the College was in 2003. The event's location rotates every year, with institutions such as Cal State - East Bay, Diablo Valley College and Los Medanos College alternating as hosts. Brother President Ronald Gallagher said it's important community colleges and four-year institutions support the conference's goals. "Unfortunately, many high school students from under-resourced communities view College as an unattainable goal," said Gallagher. "That's why it's important to foster the idea of higher education with visits to institutions like Saint Mary's so they can picture themselves on a campus like ours. We're proud the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce selected the College as the location for the 'Narrowing the Gap' conference."
Br. Camillus Chavez Photograph by Dave Cortese