Cristian Sanchez is a 15-year-old boy from Lake County, Ill. Sanchez, along with 62 other students, has been embarking on a six-day long conference that he calls "life changing."
"It always sounds silly, but it really does change your life," he said.
Sanchez is participating in the 2007 Midwest Young Leaders Conference, an event run by the National Hispanic Institution (NHI). This year, DePauw University is playing host to the occasion.
The NHI is a nonprofit organization located in Maxwell, Texas.
"It's concerned about the growing disconnection between higher education students and their communities," said Nicole Sada, the NHI's chief financial officer. According to Sada, NHI offers opportunities for young Latinos to discuss the issues at hand, to be able to speak about purpose and policy, and to brainstorm ideas to increase the quality of life.
NHI has dealt with approximately 5,000 students from 16 different states, Sada said. These students range from high school to college level.
"We do 98 percent of our activities here [in the U.S.], but we also run out of Mexico, Argentina, and Spain," she added.
For their events like the Young Leaders Conference, NHI recruits students by locating schools with a large Hispanic population and invites the students to participate, Sada told the BannerGraphic. For the conference, students had to have a 3.0 GPA, but she said for other events, they have to possess a 3.5 GPA.
"Ninety-nine percent of our students progress on to college," she added.
For six days, the participants in the Young Leaders Conference embark on a journey consisting of over three days of training a two-day long tournament of debates and speeches. This is the first year it's been held at DePauw.
"We're obviously very excited," Keith Stanford of the university's admissions office said. "We're very committed to the NHI's mission and will hopefully work with them for years to come."
Sada agreed about coming back to DePauw in the future, but is also concerned about recruiting Indiana students along the way. She believes the NHI needs to establish more trust and more of a presence in the Indianapolis area for that to happen.
"We have room for 100 students at this conference, so there is room for Indiana students," she said.
As for the tournament this year, students had to choose one of three different types of competition: cross examination, oratory, and extemporaneous speaking. Each category has its own topic for the students to research.
"I want to be a lawyer, and I think the cross-examination will help," said participant Cynthia Davila.
Student Jesse Ocampo said he really enjoyed the topics. "I want to be a businessman, and it's good that our topics are about economics in communities."
Sada explained that each category had its own topic, but each came back to the main idea of advancing in the community.
"I think it's definitely a motivational experience that begins to build a community purpose among these youth," she said. She went on to say that a lot of children view their Hispanic communities as "damaged goods", and NHI's purpose is to shift their views and mind sets to see the assets of those communities instead.
"They're normally not asked about advancing the community, and they seem very interested in beginning to form an opinion," Sada said. "It's an awakening."
She said the parents she has been working with during the conference have noted obvious changes in their children since the conference began. The students did not deny there have been changes.
"It helps with your confidence," Sanchez said. "You're not being pushed, and it gets you to the point where you want to do it yourself."
Jose Rodriguez added that there's more to the conference than just serious work, as well.
"You can relate to the people. You can intentionally make life-long friends. They get you out there and teach you the most valuable things," he said.
Sanchez, Ocampo, Davila, and Rodriguez said they are all excited and very motivated for the tournament this weekend. They noted it was friendly competition and none of the students held grudges but instead promoted team spirit.
"It is life-changing," Davila said. "You learn valuable life skills. I've liked it so far."
The Saturday tournament is open to the public. It takes place at the Union Building Ballroom at DePauw from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.