In the small community of Ceres, few students like Kimberly Ochoa have the desire and dream to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
"I want to go to Harvard and I want to become a doctor," said Ochoa last Wednesday afternoon at the State Capitol
The 17-year-old high school junior applied and was successfully accepted to the 30th annual Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project (CLYLP) this summer, which drew approximately 120 students from around the state for an intensive week-long leadership conference in Sacramento.
Encouraged by a high school counselor to apply for the program, Ochoa didn't think it was possible to have hopes and dreams about obtaining a college education until she met other students in the program who inspired her to continue dreaming big.
"I have lived in Ceres since the age of four and let me be the first to tell you how rare it is to hear a person from a small community say they want to go to Stanford, Harvard or Berkeley when they graduate from high school," Ochoa said.
Her parents consider education to be the most important thing in her life -- they hold on to the expectation Ochoa will attend a four-year university. Ochoa says meeting like-minded students from communities similar to her own and who share her lofty ambitions, has further encouraged her to make her dreams a reality.
"When you hear your peers say on a daily basis how badly they want to attend some of the best schools our country has to offer, I feel more motivated than ever to fulfill my dreams. I want to be that one person in my family that has 'made it' -- the one who has received the best education possible," she said.
Ochoa, who already boasts a 4.0 grade point average and is enrolled in every advanced placement course her high school offers, is also president of the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council and volunteers for a number of organizations in her community. By all accounts, she is on track to fulfilling her long-term dream.
CLYLP organizers say the leadership conference is intended to motivate students, but also help build their leadership potential. Participants are put through a comprehensive curriculum designed to increase their awareness of college, career, culture and community.
"The students who are selected to participate in this program are the most promising Chicano students in our state who are poised to become the next generation of leaders in our communities," said Norma Domínguez, President of the California Latino Youth Leadership Project Board of Directors. She is also a 1996 alumni of the program.
The week-long conference boasts a 'Capitol Day' where students spend a full day at the State Capitol and meet with policymakers to participate in mock legislative hearings. There, they discuss and debate some of California's top policy and key legislative issues facing the state from a student's perspective. They also learn how bills become law.
When the students arrived at their host college, California State University, Sacramento, they heard speeches from many local community leaders including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson; Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista, who delivered a presentation on 'Latinos in California Respond to the Civil War;' iconic civil rights leader Dolores Huerta; and, Sal Castro, an educator and activist known for his role in the 1968 East Los Ángeles walkouts, among others.
Anna Caballero, who is currently the highest ranking Latina in the State of California and the Secretary at the California State and Consumer Services Agency, also spoke to the students and shared her experience. She believes CLYLP brings the most "talented, enthusiastic and eager to learn" students from around the state to the Capitol each year.
"The most important thing Latino youth can take away from this conference is to become civically engaged and to vote. It is important they learn how decisions are made at the state level because many of the decisions that are made affect them, their families and their communities," Caballero said.
When Modesto native, Andrew Solís was convinced by his sister -- who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley then received a master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing a PhD at UC Berkeley -- to apply to CLYLP, it didn't take long for him to accept.
"I've never been surrounded by so many students who are energized and excited to see the change that needs to be done in this world. Being Chicano is not a label here, it is an obligation to do something great with our lives and to give back," said Solís, 17.
The first-generation Mexican-American who traces his family's roots to León, Guanajuato lives in a household of older siblings who have stressed the importance of obtaining a solid education and in taking every opportunity in order to learn and grow.
"Everyone is always giving me advice on how to navigate through the education system and one thing I've learned is that not many Chicanos go to college. I want to change that -- we owe it to our parents who had bigger dreams than we did," he said.
Since 1982, 90% of CLYLP's participants have gone on to college and many alumni have become leaders in both the public and private sector, according to organizers. By participating in high impact activities, the students enhance their leadership skills, academic preparedness, self-esteem and cultural awareness.
Caballero believes the conference is training California's next future leaders.
"Latinos are the fastest growing population in the state and that's why it is vital these students receive the necessary training and exposure to become the next generation of leaders our country has to offer," Caballero said.