Legislators and state officials extolled the power of education to a group of 120 students participating in the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
High school juniors and seniors from across the state gathered in Sacramento for a weeklong leadership program that included meetings with lawmakers and mock policy debates.
Prominent Latino officials, like Anna Caballero Secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing agency and Diana Fuentes-Michel executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, encouraged the students to seek higher education.
Caballero told the students her success would not be possible without education.
"Education is what opened the door to opportunities in my life," Caballero said. "To become a lawyer, to have my own business, to become the mayor of Salinas, to be elected to the state Assembly, and now to be appointed as a cabinet secretary to Gov. Jerry Brown."
More than 90 percent of the 3,800 students who have participated in the 31 years of the program have gone on to attend college. Alicia Vidales-Vera, a 17-year-old student from Wasco., hoped to become one of them.
Vidales-Vera's parents are farmworkers, who she said had to drop off her and her four siblings with a babysitter every day at 4 a.m. to get to work on time. Their struggle to support her family inspired her to apply to the program, she said.
"I am a first-generation college bound, and I am inspired to attend a university," she said. "Without the support given to me by my family and friends, I would not be here today."
Speakers encouraged all students, including those who are undocumented, to apply to college
"There is a place for you in our institutions of higher education of California and the California Student Aid commission will help you get there," Fuentes-Michel said.
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, told the students that their success was not only important to their futures, but to the state's future as well. The Department of Finance projected that Latinos will become the largest ethnic group in California by 2014.
"When we now reemerge with a Latino plurality in our state, and as the secretary said, on our way to a Latino majority in this state, the future is here standing behind me," Dickinson said.
PHOTO: Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Program coordinator Diana Vasquez introduces student speakers at a press conference at the state Capitol on July 24, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Annalise Mantz.