Celia De Leon
More than 300 students gather at a gym in Harper College in Palatine for Latino Summit 2010
She's one of 350 students who participated in the Latino Summit, an annual event that brings together Latino youth from 12 Northwest Suburban high schools in an effort to introduce them to professionals and college students.
For some it's another field trip, but for Flores, a senior at Rolling Meadows High School, it's a special occasion. She's one of the finalists for a $500 scholarship that could change the course of her education future.
"For me it's very important because they are giving me an opportunity to study what I want to be," said Andrea.
Flores' first experienced the Latino Summit as a freshman, and recent transplant to the United States.
"I was excited when I first came to the summit, because it was the first college I had ever seen in my life," said Andrea.
She says she never imagined the summit would inspire her to further her education, let alone grant her a scholarship to pursue her dreams of becoming a nurse, or a teacher.
Flores probably would not have had the opportunity to hear about these college prospects if she were still living in her native Mexico. Things were more difficult there. Her mother died when she was 10, she never met her father, and she and her three brothers had to find their own way to survive.
A few years ago, she moved to the United States with her older brother, and left two siblings behind. Now at 18, she is poised for a college education, if she can secure enough funding.
Other's at the summit share a similar story. They're there to listen to motivational keynote speakers, and to split into small groups to hear the stories of Latino professionals and college student panelists, who volunteer their time. Organizers hope the summit provides the students with the necessary tools to say yes to college, and no to dropping out of school.
"My goal is to get as many Latinos to achieve success and to show this nation that we can make it better than what it already is," said Dr.Lourdes Ferrer, the keynote speaker for this year's summit.
Ferrer is a National Consultant of Hispanic Academic Achievement. She travels around the country speaking to students, parents, and educators, of what she has learned in her extensive research about Hispanic students in the United States.
"I found that there are five great challenges for the Hispanic community in the United States," said Dr. Ferrer about her study of more than 1,000 students during a five-year period.
Dr. Ferrer says some of those challenges include language limitation, negative stereotypes about Latinos, and the family divide. "I found that even with kids that are born here, the level of English proficiency is not high enough for them to succeed in college. They may end up enrolling, but they will probably drop out because their reading and writing levels are too low," said Dr. Ferrer.
And a recent study shows just that. Only 57 percent of Hispanic students are graduating from high school, and only about 10 percent actually earn a college degree in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"But I teach these kids that they are not victims, that they are victorious, and tell them that the key is to learn as much as they can, and be aware of the advantages of being Latino. They are not just bilingual... they are multicultural and no one can take that from them," Dr. Ferrer said.
Many of them are simply looking for opportunity.
Back at the gym at Harper College, Flores and 10 other students find out they've been awarded the $500 scholarships. For Flores, it's a dream come true.
"Even though I don't have my mom, or my dad, or the support of a family, I'm going to keep studying. I'm going to keep my head up and continue to go to school so I can be someone," Flores said.
Now she can pursue her future.
*Sandra Torres is a Content Producer for NBC Chicago, and a Fill-in Reporter for Telemundo Chicago. She has participated in the Latino Summit as a college student and professional panelist since 2004.