Michael Campos never imagined himself going to Harvard, a place he says "where magic happens."
"Never did the possibility of coming to this school enter my mind. Part of it was because of my low economic resources and another part was that I did not believe in myself," said the 22-year-old dietetics major at The University of Texas-Pan American.
However, Campos has since learned that his possibilities are endless after participating this summer in the Latino Leadership Institute (LLI), offered through the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at the Harvard Kennedy School.
"I learned through the LLI that the only thing that can stop me is myself. I can go anywhere I want to go if I have determination, work hard and set my mind to it," said Campos, who, post LLI, has added an interest in public policy into his career plans to become a physician assistant. "LLI helped me discover that a leader is not one who tries to get the best benefit, but one who empowers others to do something they thought they could not do."
Launched in 2010, LLI is a weeklong leadership development program that prepares rising college seniors for the opportunities and challenges they will face in the coming decades. Campos and four other UTPA students were selected through a competitive application process to attend the LLI. The Bronc contingent was among 41 rising seniors, 70 percent of whom are the first in their families to attend college, participating at this year's LLI held June 24-30 in Cambridge, Mass.
Other participating schools were Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles), University of California-Merced, Texas A&M International University, University of Houston, University of Massachusetts-Boston, Miami Dade College and the City University of New York's Macaulay Honors College.
Also attending from UTPA were Yvette Alaniz, Jose Briones, Karelyn Flores Rosado and Francisco Patino. UT Pan American alumna Valeria Caso (BA-Econ '12), who was a LLI participant last year, accompanied the group, serving as a UTPA cohort mentor, as did Dr. Kenneth Buckman, UTPA associate provost for the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning.
LLI participants also had the opportunity to build relationships with respected Latino mentors from the government, nonprofit and business sectors, who talked to them about what it takes to be a leader and the opportunities available to them in the future.
Among this year's guest speakers were Dr. Robert Sackstein, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in bone marrow transplants and stem cell research; Gustavo Arnavat, executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank; Laura Nieto, senior manager of community affairs and grassroots at Southwest Airlines; and Johnny Marines, manager of the Romeo Santos/Aventura music group.
Guest speaker Carmen M. Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, most impressed Rosado, 24, a psychology and public administration major at UTPA.
"She is a Puerto Rican American like me, first (in her family) to graduate high school and college like me, and born and raised in the 'ghettos' of New York City like me. Hearing her speak made me break down in quiet tears because I identified with every part of her story," said Rosado, who indicated she often questioned her leadership capabilities before attending the LLI. "One lesson I learned from Ortiz was that yes, women in the work world can have it all ... women can be successful professionals, wives and mothers."
As an aspiring physician, 21-year-old Patino, a premed biology and general studies major, said he was most impacted by Sackstein, who invited students to join his research project. Patino also enjoyed working with the other students during the intensive, sometimes 14-hour days of classroom sessions.
"We got to know each other very well. I came back from Harvard with young Latino friends from all around the nation from whom I have learned different perspectives and ideologies," he said.
Last year's UTPA team project - L.I.V.E. (Latino Initiative for Voter Empowerment) - focused on civic engagement and voter registration by Valley residents, particularly young people. L.I.V.E. helped more than 6,000 students register to vote. This year's participants said they found a shared purpose while at LLI wanting to focus on promoting a healthier lifestyle within the Rio Grande Valley community, which has high rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
"Currently, the RGV area is ranked No. 1 in obesity, 40 percent of our population is overweight. Our mission is to create a student/administration alliance so that the students have more say in healthier food choices and more information is provided about the food available," said Alaniz, 24, who is majoring in sociology. "We hope to commit students to our cause so that we can make a difference now."
Buckman, who attended every lecture, breakout session and special guest speaker presentation with the students, said the LLI experience was a life changing one for them.
"At the end of the eight days at the Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership it was clear that all the student participants were different people from the persons who began the program," he said. "One could see the skills and confidence levels of the students grow hourly as they were exposed to training, information, engaged situations, and inspirational speakers."
Buckman described the LLI as one of the most important educational initiatives in the country.
"By the year 2050 from 35 to 37 percent of the population of the United States will be Latino/Latina. It is crucial and immediate that we develop a generation of Hispanic young people to step into roles of prominence and leadership over the next several decades," he said. "Our students specifically were educated by some of the most important and creative faculty on leadership development in the country. Many of the students came away from the experience thinking 'I can go to Harvard.'"