In 2017, only 77 percent of Utah Latinos graduated high school. The percentage of those going to college is even lower.
To help increase the number of Latino enrollments in colleges, Utah State University held a Latinos-In-Action boot camp. The boot camp provides students with opportunities to explore higher education, experience leadership, and network with their peers.
Nahomie Marie Jimenez is a Latinos in Action Alumni and currently serving as a group leader.
"I love this generation," she said. "It’s the entryway to the rest of their lives. They’re seeing all of these amazing things and these amazing role models and they’re saying, ‘Yeah, I can do that.”
Groups were assigned someone who is both a Latinos in Action alumni and current USU student to be their mentor. They were referred to by event organizers as “the leaders of the leaders.”
Jimenez has been a member of Latinos in Action for six years and says the organization gave her the tools to graduate high school, attend USU, and take on a mentorship role at the event.
“Our girls were talking about being a Latina woman in America. 'I’m an American, but I’m also a Latina. How do I do this?'" said Jimenez.
The university set up tables in the Eccles Conference Center on campus representing different colleges and extracurricular groups at USU. Students gather around to ask questions at a table promoting STEM learning for latino students.
Dr. Jose Enriquez is the founder of Latinos and Action. He says the low rate of latino students pursuing and graduating college is because latino students often have a difficult time learning English or paying for tuition. Many stay home to take care of younger siblings while their parents work.
When his family immigrated from El Salvador, he encountered many of the same barriers he now sees his students face.
“I had to learn really quick in LA to fend for myself," he said. "Education became premier in our home. It was important. Even though we didn’t have much education, we knew it was going to be the door to many things in this country."
He founded Latinos in Action in 2001 for students who may have experienced something similar.
“It’s always active. That’s why we call it Latino in Action because the best way I think our youth learn is through hands-on, actively doing things and actively creating service and creating leadership.," Enriquez said. "We could teach them about Latino heroes, or we could create our own."
One of the final evenings of the camp, students celebrated at dinner with keynote speaker, Senator Luz Escamilla, the first female Latina senator in Utah.
“You’re going to be afraid but you just have to do it," she said. "Running for office as the first Latina for the Senate and being an immigrant myself, it wasn’t easy but I knew I had to do it."
Before leaving the boot camp the next day, students reflected on the importance of embracing their heritage as they pursue success in the future.
“It’s really awesome that I am both American and a Latina," said Alandra, a high school student from Burley, Idaho. "No matter who you are, we are all humans, we are all equal, and we can all do it.”
“Just from the few days that I’ve been able to experience these students, I’m really inspired," Jimenez said. "I always tell them that the biggest thank you that they can give to me is inviting me to their graduation."
Latinos in Action has chapters in five states, in more than 160 schools, and provides opportunities for nearly 6,000 students. Of those in the program there is a 98 percent high school graduation rate.