Amanda Ercilla looked out over the classroom full of young Latino girls looking back at her, and tried to gauge their reaction to her message.
"I didn't really know a lot of Latino professionals growing up," she told them. "I didn't really know what I wanted to be."
A minority achievement coordinator at Gunston Middle School, it is Ercilla's job to encourage students from many different ethnic backgrounds but this afternoon, she is focused on one, Latinos. Vacillating from English to Spanish as easily as one might change stations on a radio, she tells them to think about college, about their careers, to believe in themselves, a message some of them might need to hear.
"I guess I just want them to know they always need to keep their heritage with them, to recognize where they come from, but also to look to the future," she said later. "Even if they are the first members of their family to be in this country, I want them to know that they should be standing up for themselves and working towards their dreams even if people tell them they can't."
Her lecture to the girls is part of the 12th annual Latino Youth Leadership Conference, an event sponsored Friday by Arlington Public Schools to encourage Latino achievement. Students filled the halls of the George Mason University's Arlington classroom building in Clarendon to participate in workshops aimed at exposing them to different career fields and encouraging them to reach for their dreams.
"The poinT I WANT to get across to these kids is that the sky is the limit," said Robert Valencia, a graduate of Yorktown High School who now serves as a staff assistant to U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). Valencia conducted a workshop titled "My Dream as a Latino," the theme of this year's conference.
"Sometimes, being a minority student, you're not always aware of your options. It's important to have someone to guide you and encourage you and that's what this is really about."
Workshops designed to expose students to careers in medicine, technology, education and journalism brought many other Latino graduates from Arlington back to help usher their younger counterparts into college.
"I'd always had a fuzzy picture of college and what that meant when I was in school," said Brian Marroquin, 18, who is currently attending Virginia Tech. "But being told I couldn't go only made me want it more."
Marroquin was born in Guatemala but has lived in Arlington for almost 15 years. When it came time for him to pursue college, Marroquin's status as an immigrant prevented him from going, despite the fact that he and his family pay taxes and have been legally employed during the entire time they've lived in the United States. Federal immigrations authorities mistakenly classified him as an illegal immigrant during his senior year of high school. The designation kept him from being able to receive financial aid for his tuition. Undeterred, Marroquin found a team of pro-bono attorneys and loca representatives to help correct the mistake. He came to the conference to tell his story and spur others to fight for their college education.
"As far as what I faced last semester, these students need to know that they shouldn't be intimidated," he said.
Marroquin is now planning to transfer from Virginia Tech to George Mason, where he will study education to become a teacher.
Students looking to find jobs and internships also had a chance to meet with Latino representatives from federal agencies. The Arlington School District began a program in 2003 to set up credit internships with federal agencies for students.
"Latinos and Hispanics are underrepresented in the government," said Harry Salinas, a program manager for the USDA who brought his staff to the conference. "What appeals to us is this great opportunity to connect with young Hispanic students, the future of America, to help them consider the number of opportunities they have."
About 15 students undertook the first internship program, according to Bob Rodriguez, an administrator at H.B. Woodlawn High School.
"Our vision for next year is to get as many into those internships as they can take," he said.
But the overriding message of the conference was one of identity and pride among Latino students, a minority in Arlington schools.
"I'm glad that they're pushing us to work together as a community to achieve our goals and to not feel inferior, that they're letting us know we’re Americans, that we live here and we have the same rights like everybody else," said Alejandro Asin, 17, a senior at Yorktown High School.
A further aspect was unity.
"The union of Latino minorities is very important," said Caroline Herrera, 17, a senior at Washington-Lee High School. "This is very valuable to us as a student community."