Nestor Zavala came to the U.S. at 10 years old knowing success would be a lot harder for him than most of his peers.
His broken English attracted bullies. He didn't particularly like school. His family was poor.
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Zavala wanted a better life, but didn't know how to get it.
It wasn't until he got to Maine West High School and attended one of the first Latino Summits at Harper College that he realized higher education would be the gateway. The dozens of college students and professionals in attendance were his proof: If they could find their way past similar obstacles, so could he.
"I didn't know what college was until that event," Zavala said. "I was inspired. I told myself, 'I want to be like that.'"
On Friday, Zavala was the source of inspiration for others, sharing his story with more than 400 high school freshmen and sophomores on the Palatine campus for the 12th annual Latino Summit.
Zavala, the event's guest of honor, talked about the sacrifices and work he put into high school by joining the soccer and cross country teams, working part-time, performing community service and studying hard. He went on to earn a full scholarship to Beloit College and recently graduated. He's now employed as a management trainee at Enterprise.
The organizers behind the Latino Summit, which was put on by Harper, Oakton Community College, Roosevelt University and 13 northwest suburban high schools, burst with pride hearing stories such as Zavala's.
They hope that by motivating students to set educational goals beyond high school, they'll address troubling statistics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the high school dropout rate for Latinos is nearly 30 percent, compared to 7 percent for Caucasians. And Latino students tend to drop out at an earlier age than other groups.
Keynote speaker Jazmin Beltran, a journalist currently working as a freelance news reporter for Univision Chicago, encouraged the group to take responsibility for their lives and have a positive attitude, especially during tough times. She emphasized that successful people don't wait around for opportunities.
"Success is a stairway, not a doorway," Beltran said.
After the opening program, students broke into small groups to meet with more than 100 Latino college students and professionals representing 20 industry sectors. Among those volunteering their time was former Harper student Michael Gonzalez, who now owns Home Helpers, a senior home-care agency.
"I'm just paying it forward," Gonzalez said. "I came to Harper a shy and quiet kid, and came out a leader. Higher education changes you and opens doors."
The Latino Summit also awarded more than a dozen scholarships to college-bound graduates who participated in the event back as a freshman or sophomore. One was Hoffman Estates High School senior Kristopher Cordova, who plans to attend Harper and then transfer to a pre-med program.
"The (Latino Summit) just stuck with me," Cordova said. "I knew I should try to better myself so that I actually have a chance at becoming a doctor. And I feel prepared."