KEARNEY – Daniel Marez and other members of the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity used their dance moves to pump up the crowd Friday morning at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney student never performed at the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference before, but he’s a product of its message.
Marez, president of the Latino-based fraternity at UNK, attended the annual event four times while he was a student at Hastings High School.
“It’s a big part of the reason why I came to UNK,” he said. “That was a big influence for me.”
Now in his fourth year at UNK, Marez and the other Sigma Lambda Beta members signed on to perform at Friday’s event because they wanted to make a difference.
“We feel that by volunteering at this conference we can help the high schoolers come here and be leaders around the community,” Marez said.
That’s the goal of the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, which was established in 2002 and is sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Office of Admissions and Division of Student Affairs at UNK.
The event brought about 300 students from 16 high schools to Kearney for a day focused on helping them achieve their goals.
“We want to make sure students have options other than going straight to work after high school,” said Juan Carlos Guzman, director of the UNK Office of Multicultural Affairs and president of the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, which aims to inspire students to pursue higher education and become future leaders.
A recurring message throughout the day was every high schooler has the opportunity to attend college. This event helped point them in the right direction.
Attendees could access information on scholarships and other financial aid, check out booths from numerous UNK departments and programs, as well as a couple of community colleges, Joseph’s College of Cosmetology and the U.S. Marine Corps, and hear from students and guest speakers who shared their educational and professional journeys.
Guzman said many first-generation college students have trouble navigating the sometimes complex system, so they need some guidance to make the process less daunting.
It helps even more when this advice comes from people with similar backgrounds.
“They need to see someone they can relate to, because a lot of first-generation students are here thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it. I’m not worth it,’” Guzman said.
Eliezer Ocampo, a senior at Omaha Burke High School, was among attendees looking for some postsecondary knowledge. He plans to be the first member of his family to graduate from college, but first he needed information on financial aid and his desired pre-med track.
“I see myself as being successful,” said Ocampo, who wants to be a pediatrician.
A few years ago, UNK junior Ruby Mendez was just like Ocampo.
She started attending the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference as a sophomore at Crete High School. That experience and the connections she made led to a full scholarship to attend UNK.
Now she’s the student chair for the annual event and encouraging younger students to follow her path.
“I really just want them to go somewhere after high school,” said Mendez, who is majoring in organizational and relational communications.
In addition to gathering resources at the conference, Mendez said she was inspired to pursue higher education by the Latino professionals who speak during the event.
“That’s something you didn’t often see in my hometown,” she said.
One of the messages shared Friday came from Paul Younes, a local entrepreneur and Nebraska Business Hall of Fame inductee who owns several hotel properties across the state. He opened the Younes Conference Center in early 2011.
Younes, a native of Israel and Kearney State College alumnus, told students they can create their own luck with ambition.
“If you work hard, you’re always going to excel,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, what nationality you are, what you do. If you work hard, you will reach your dreams.”
Cozad High School guidance counselor Bruce Hird brought 16 members of the school’s recently formed multicultural leadership group to the conference so they could hear these success stories and see students similar to them doing well in college.
“My dream as a counselor is to give these kids some hope,” he said. “Sometimes they take second fiddle to everybody else. They need to know they can be as big a leader as any other kid in school.”
Although she’s just a freshman at Gibbon High School, Dominique Alvarenga already has her sights set high.
She wants to attend a university then continue her studies to become a physician or surgeon. Participating in the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference was a step in that direction.
“I know it’s going to be really hard to achieve my goal, but I’m going to get there someday,” Alvarenga said.