SUMMIT, NJ - Despite being New Jersey’s largest minority group, Hispanics lag behind other communities in terms of college enrollment. A local grassroots organization is striving to change that.  

On April 2, the Alliance for Latino Leadership held a ‘Latino Youth Leadership Conference’ in the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling. More than 30 students from various high schools in northern New Jersey, including Summit High School, attended the event.

The conference invited students to explore different careers paths through conversations with local Latino professionals and offered them guidance for life after graduation by way of different activities, said Janet Maulbeck, chair of the organization and a resident of Summit.

Sign Up for E-News

“We are genuinely hoping to foster leadership in our young people,” Maulbeck said. “We believe it is the best way to strengthened the Latino community and the overall community as a whole.”

The Alliance for Latino Leadership, which has hosted an annual leadership conference since 2014, aims to embolden students with Latino heritage through professional and spiritual guidance, according to the organization’s website.

Together with other local advocates for Latino empowerment, Maulbeck founded the group in 2012 after recognizing the lack of assistance offered to Hispanics in the local suburban area. Since then, the Alliance’s priority has been promoting education for what she calls, “the future generation of Latino leaders.”

Fellow co-founder and Spanish teacher in Summit High School, Aurora Hermo, is certain that events like the one hosted on Saturday will provide students with the necessary tools to find their own paths in life.

“The conference is a good way for the students to see themselves as leaders and for them to have experiences that they don’t usually have,” Hermo said.

Students from high schools in Randolph, Dover, Millburn and New Providence also partook in the event. Participating college bound seniors were offered two scholarships by the organization.

For Melina Campos, a senior in Summit High School, the professionals present at the event offered her a new perspective on her aspirations after graduation. “Just hearing their personal stories gave me ideas about what I’m going to do after college and in regards to finding a job,” she said. “I was inspired to be like them one day.”

The conference focused on a central theme titled, ‘The Journey to Becoming Me,’ which was explored through activities involving set objectives and teamwork. Towards the end, students created timelines that illustrated their lives’ journeys.

Reynaldo Perez, a junior in Summit High School, said that he was able to successfully connect with organization’s premise. For him, playing the bongos was especially gratifying.  

“It felt great to be able to play them in an environment where the theme is finding ourselves,” Perez said. “I like to find myself through music melodies.”

Students enrolled in ESL classes at the schools appreciated that all of the event’s segments were conducted in both English and Spanish.

This was especially true for Summit High School freshman Brittany Lopez, who just recently arrived in the United States from Mexico.

“The conference was a way for me to escape my daily routine and meet new people,” she said. “I got to talk to people who speak my language and who can relate to my story.”

The students were not the only ones that got something out of the event, said Nataly Romero, an ESL teacher in Summit High School. For her, the conference served a forum of mutual learning because she still describes herself as a continuing “English learner.”

Maulbeck believes the Alliance for Latino Leadership will continue to uphold its commitment to the area’s Hispanic population – especially the younger generation – for years to come. She is already looking forward to planning next year’s conference.

“The Latino community is here to stay. We are a part of the fabric of American life and we are going to be impacting the future,” she said. “Caring about our kids is caring about the future of our country and society.”