“Bienvenidos a todos,” said George Mason president Angel Carbrera, a native of Spain, in a keynote address.
He encouraged the Arlington students to think without limits about their futures and to improve their chances of getting a good job by pursuing higher education.
He also told them what an advantage they have in an increasingly diverse country to be bicultural and bilingual.
The 21st annual leadership conference was coordinated by the Latin American Student Congress, representing students from all three Arlington high schools.
The event was conducted in Spanish (though some speakers opted for “Spanglish”), offering students a rare chance to communicate in their native tongue at school, said Francesca Reilly-McDonnell, a co-founder of the conference who oversees programs for English language learners.
She said the goal is to “honor their culture and language” and to help students feel comfortable.
Latino students make up the largest minority group in Arlington public schools, with 28 percent of the enrollment.
During breakout sessions, the middle and high school students got to hear from Latino professionals working in a wide range of professional fields, including social work, psychology, education, construction trades, military, medical careers, and interpretation and translation.
A probation officer originally from Puerto Rico and a chemist born in Colombia who conducts drug tests for parolees were among the speakers in a session on criminal justice careers. The professionals shared stories about immigrating to the United States, how they learned English and how they pursued higher education and found their careers.
One of the speakers urged the students to find role models and mentors who can help guide their paths.
“It’s very important to have people you can talk to,” he said.