Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas' parents' education stopped after the second grade. He now holds a master's degree, is trilingual and a trainer for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Oregon Health & Science University.
As the keynote speaker at Southern Oregon University's Cesar Chavez Leadership Conference, Merecias-Cuevas told his story of overcoming structural barriers to his achievement as a student and then as a professional. He used to wonder whether he could belong in a world of academic degrees and achievement.
"Let me tell you this," he said to the students who filled SOU's Music Recital Hall. "You belong in your dreams. You belong in your plans, you belong in your objectives, you belong in the things you set in your mind. So ... start your plan."
The eighth annual Cesar Chavez Leadership Conference, from Merecias-Cuevas’ speech to the workshops on topics such as college scholarships, biliteracy seals and social justice, repeatedly focused on the possibilities open to the more than 350 high school students who attended.
Jonathan Chavez Baez, coordinator for minority outreach programs at SOU, said he thinks being immersed in Latino community and exposed to role models as the conference allows, might have impacted him for better when he was a student growing up.
“I wish we even had a glimpse of what these students are a part of,” he said. “But that’s why I do this type of work, so these new generations don’t have to go through all those obstacles that we had to go through.”
Inherent in many of the stories presenters shared, as well as the legacy of namesake Cesar Chavez, was a recognition of ongoing struggle — difficult lives of hard labor, discrimination and poverty. But students said hearing that others, especially mentors and inspirations, faced the same challenges or felt similarly isolated at times encouraged them.
Julissa Villaseñor, a senior at Phoenix High School, said that one of her workshop leaders’ stories resonated with her because his situation while building a future reminded her of her own.
“He was talking about how being a first-generation student was kind of a struggle, not having the support from his parents, just because they didn’t know how it was being in college,” she said. “I just thought that was something I could really relate to.”
Villaseñor will become the first person in her family to attend college when she enters the Oregon Institute of Technology to study biology-health sciences.
In addition to sharing stories, the conference also offered participants practical lessons in skills ranging from essay writing to applying for scholarships and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
In his bilingual workshop, titled “From Grit to Ganas: The Art of Learning,” Merecias-Cuevas used hands-on activities to get students out of their chairs to network, encouraging them to write down five “crazy” goals for their lives and then visualize one. Whenever someone shared a dream with the group, everyone clapped.
“We are not often in places where people are applauding your efforts,” he said.
Sometimes, the activities seemed more centered on catching students’ interests in fun ways. Dr. Precious Yamaguchi, an associate professor of communication at SOU, led a workshop called “Exploring Cultures Through Virtual Reality,” where students explored real and fictional environments with headsets and other tools.
Students from SOU led the groups of high-schoolers to and from their activities. Some of them were past participants in the conference. Many of the presenters and volunteers have children attending schools in Southern Oregon, who they want to see have better opportunities, they said.
Merecias-Cuevas also reminded the students that their success would be important to more than just them. He encouraged them to remember who came before them, drawing on his own childhood memories of parents and grandparents picking strawberries in the fields.
“Remember this,” he said, “they were doing this for someone at home. ... It is important to be grateful.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.