Samuel García woke up at the crack of dawn to board a bus for a long, four-hour ride, through the long stretch of Highway 99, en route to the University of California, Davis.
A student at Madera High School, García was encouraged by his counselor to attend a leadership conference that would help gear him towards attending college. It didn’t take too much convincing before he decided to make the early-morning Saturday trip.
“I definitely want to go to college and get a good education but knowing what I need to do to get there is really important,” he said.
The 16-year-old sophomore will be the first in his family to attend college. As the eldest of three siblings, García hopes to pave a path for his younger brother and sister who also aspire to go to college.
At UC Davis, García was one of thousands of students from Sacramento, Central and Northern California who attended the 17th annual César Chávez Youth Leadership Conference. It was there he got a dose of motivation and a backpack full of information to make his dream of going to college, a reality.
“The workshops were cool and especially listening to the speakers. I’ve never heard so many of them talk about the struggles they went through to become successful. That gives me hope for my future and aspirations,” said García.
At UC Davis, a record 2,000 students from as far south as Madera to as far North as Chico and the Bay Area, traveled by bus, and others with their families by car, to attend the annual leadership conference that aims to connect students with college recruiters and counselors, provide them with community resources and encourage them to learn from professional role models who can help them plan their future career.
An additional 500 students registered on the spot Saturday morning for the one-day conference.
Each year, the free conference aims to be motivational for junior high, high school and community college students, as well as parents and community members.
For a full day, students and their families visit workshops that provide information on college admissions and requirements, transfer tips, financial aid, help for undocumented and DACA students, information about pursuing STEM college degrees and even, ‘how to own a business.’
Other workshops focus on teaching students a history lesson so they have a better understanding of their culture and heritage. Some workshops showcase young professionals working in the military, as law enforcement officials, teachers, lawyers and members of the media so students have exposure to different career paths they could pursue after college.
“The goal is always to provide as much help and information to these students in all aspects of their life so they can hopefully, one day, consider applying to UC Davis,” said René Aguilera, the conference founder and primary organizer.
From early morning until late afternoon, students took tours of the UC Davis campus, learned about its history and navigated their way from building to building starting at the conference’s central point: the ARC Pavilion to attend workshops they were interested in.
Before they venture off in the early morning when they arrive, they hear opening remarks from motivational speakers in the community who encourage them to go to college.
On Saturday, they heard from Anthony Chávez , the grandson of the late civil, labor and farm workers rights leader César Chávez who championed farm workers and was responsible for initiating the farm worker movement which left a legacy in American history.
“My grandfather took a giant leap of faith in creating the United Farm Workers. He wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but he knew with a lot of determination that fighting for the rights of farm workers was something he truly wanted to do,” said Chávez .
At the podium, he shared with students and their families– many of whom have a farm worker background– that making dreams a reality is not a far-fetched idea.
“It takes commitment and a lot of sacrifice to achieve your dreams. For my grandfather, it was important that his actions would bring about hope and positive change for the community he cared so deeply about,” said Chávez .
Chávez spoke about the strong marriage his grandfather and grandmother Helen Chávez had and the passion they both shared for carrying out the vision and overall mission of the UFW. Married since 1948 with eight children, it was vital for them to stand side by side through all of the challenges life would bring.
“My ‘nana’ stood beside César and sometimes in front of him. She was bold, strong and cared deeply for the community my grandfather fought so hard to protect,” said Chávez .
Helen was a full-time volunteer when the UFW was formed. When it began to gain traction, she only earned $5 a day– a small amount to survive or even keep her children fed. Still, she devoted much of her time and energy in caring for the farm working families who were taking part in the boycotts and were helping César with his efforts to organize.
“My ‘nana’ would cook at the weddings of farm workers and invite them over for Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving. She saw those who were involved with the UFW not as members of the organization, but as family who needed support during the most difficult of times,” said Chávez .
Among all of the legacies his grandfather left behind, the most important is embodied in the ‘Si Se Puede’ slogan which Chávez says– is a baton that has been passed to the younger generations.
“We need to learn how to turn the little ‘me’ into the big ‘we’ in the fight for justice in the human race,” said Chávez .
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg also joined the stage to deliver the ten most important lessons he has learned from his years working in the political world. Those ten lessons, he said, could be applied to students who are seeking a better future.
“I believe the lessons are applicable to young students who are still in the midst of trying to figure out what they want to achieve in life,” said Steinberg.
His ten lessons to students include the realization that success isn’t achieved alone; no one wins every time; being nice to other people as a matter of civility is important; having a good fight is a necessary thing; losing is a prerequisite for achieving ones goals; falling in love with ones ideas and passion is a must; trust matters; always tell the truth; the more credit that is given, the more one receives and finally, there is a duty or obligation to help the people one meets along the way.
The ten lessons are meant to help any student pursue their highest ideals.
“The best way to measure yourself constantly throughout your life is to ask yourself who have you helped? When you get things done through the course of your career and through college, keep asking yourself that question and you will find your answers,” said Steinberg.
College recruiters like Dr. Blas G. Guerrero who is the Director of UC Davis’s Strategic Diversity Recruitment Initiatives and Transfer Programs said conferences like the annual César Chávez are helping in efforts toward making UC Davis a Hispanic Serving Institute.
“The goal is to expose the students to the campus, let them see for themselves how it feels; but also welcome them like family and ensure they have the requirements they need to apply to an institution like this,” said Guerrero.
Since 2013, Guerrero has been recruiting the top Latino talent in students to attend UC Davis. By 2019, he hopes UC Davis will meet the 23% threshold it needs to classify as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
“We need to start having our UC campuses, not just Davis, reflect the diversity of our state. Gaining HSI status will not only help us apply for additional federal funding, but the grants we are able to get will benefit all students on campus, not just Latino students,” said Guerrero.
When students like García come to campus, its important they feel a sense of ‘familia’ said Guerrero, after all, a students ultimate choice in choosing where he/she goes to college is dependent on how comfortable they feel on campus.
“It’s a matter of them being able to call a place home. If the student and their family feel like they are at home at the UC Davis campus, we are likely to gain that student and that’s important because a Latino student who goes to college doesn’t make the decision alone, its a family decision,” said Guerrero.
The one-day conference also included entertainment from the ‘Sí Se Puede’ All-Star Band, mariachi music and folkloric dancers.