HESTEC Student Leadership Day empowers teens to change the world
Posted: 10/08/2013
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Today's youth have been given a daunting task: to determine how to repair the earth's environment and sustain the planet's inhabitants.

Explorer, social entrepreneur and environmental advocate Philippe Cousteau, poses with Region One GEAR UP Director Tina Atkins during HESTEC 2013 Student Leadership Day. Cousteau delivered the morning keynote address to hundreds of high school students who attended the event.

Philippe Cousteau, explorer, social entrepreneur, environmental advocate and the grandson of famous explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, however, has the confidence that the next generation will find innovative ways to fix the damage that has been done to the earth and improve the lives of the global population.

"I believe that every single one of you ...are the next great generation who will change this country for the better," Cousteau said to hundreds of Rio Grande Valley high school students who attended Student Leadership Day of The University of Texas-Pan American's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) conference Oct. 8.

HESTEC, which runs from Oct. 6-12 and is now in its 12th year, aims to inspire students to pursue careers in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This year's theme is "Launching the Future." Lockheed Martin and Toyota co-sponsored Student Leadership Day.

Cousteau, who co-founded the nonprofit environmental education program EarthEcho International with his relatives, showed video clips of stories he did for CNN on the deteriorating health of the coral reefs off the coast of Key West, Fla. and how one community in Haiti began gardens to provide food security to their neighborhoods. He encouraged the teenagers to look into innovative ways to help their communities and not listen to naysayers.

"Don't ever make the mistake to think that you can't do anything you want to do," he said. "Never buy into the lie that destroying the environment for short-term gain is ever the right thing to do. There is a whole wide world out there and nothing is stopping you from exploring it."

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen greeted the students and asked them how many planned to attend college. He stressed the importance of them continuing their education beyond high school so they can be successful and lead future generations.

"We need you to be the next generation of leaders, we need you to be next congressmen, the next doctors, the next lawyers, the next scientists, the next explorers, and you can do that if you take advantage of today... and everything that Pan Am can give to you," Nelsen said.

Mirayda Serna, a 10th-grade student at Edcouch Elsa High School, dissects a plant during a breakout session hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at UT Pan American's HESTEC Student Leadership Day.

The high school students learned about various career opportunities and received advice on managing their money and looking for financial aid to pay for college in breakout sessions throughout the morning.

Alex Saenz, a freshman at Donna North High School, said he has always dreamed of becoming a U.S. Border Patrol Agent but said participating in the "Uncovering the Truth through Forensics," workshop sponsored by the University's College of Arts and Humanities gave him a new perspective and piqued his interest in the field of forensic science.

"It might have changed my mind and that is pretty cool. It's really fun," he said. "You get to see what we can do in college and sometimes we don't know what is out there and here we can ask as many questions as we want about future careers."

Laura Salinas, the GEAR UP facilitator for Lasara ISD, said HESTEC's vision of sparking students' interest in math and science is critical.

"A lot of our students here in the Valley, in the Hispanic Latino culture, their main thing after high school is to go straight into the workforce, and that's perfectly fine, but we can show them something different," Salinas said. "That's what HESTEC offers, they are being shown the different opportunities they have for college or going into the military. It shows them to reach further to make their lives easier than what their families were growing up."

Salinas and her students took part in the "Qualifying for a Debt-Free Education: America's Navy can Help," session and said they enjoyed learning about the diverse career selections available within STEM fields.

"HESTEC is a valuable tool. Science, technology and math, that is where our future is," Salinas said. "You look into a hospital and robots are performing surgeries so this is what our kids need to see. There are so many fields like mechanical, civil and aquatic engineering and HESTEC provides an array of that."

Jaime Gomez, a La Sara ninth grader, said he enjoyed the videos and speakers and was motivated to focus more on his studies.

Heriberto Reynoso, a robotics expert, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, speaks to high school students at UTPA's HESTEC Student Leadership Day.

"I really like these types of programs where you bring in different people to explain their careers," Gomez said. "Sometimes as students in the Valley we don't have much of an opportunity to leave and go other places to experience these things. When they brought in speakers like Philippe Cousteau, it's really great to have awesome speakers like that. It's just a better way to expose us to new and different things."

Students also participated in sessions conducted by Raytheon, H-E-B and the U.S. Army, where they polished up their leadership skills and had the chance to speak with representatives about career opportunities in STEM fields. In the afternoon Heriberto Reynoso, a robotics expert, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, shared his story about how his love for building robots led him to work for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab on the Mars Rover.

Reynoso, a native of Brownsville who graduated from The University of Texas at Brownsville in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in computer science, said his interest in robotics began when he was a small child playing with LEGOS. He continued pursuing his passion for creating robots from scratch and did not always find success. He participated in HESTEC's Robotics Day competition years ago, and though his team didn't win, he was still encouraged to persevere with his interest.

"Just because you have a failure right now does not mean you should be giving up," he said.

HESTEC continues Wednesday, Oct. 9 with Latina Day, when hundreds of teenage girls and their mothers or other female relatives will hear from successful Latinas about the obstacles they overcame to pursue their dreams, as well as learn about what scholarships and other opportunities are available to them to obtain a college degree.

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