Alberto Camacho, a sparkly-eyed 16-year-old with a crew cut and a firm handshake, held the scrawled notes of the speech he was given two minutes to prepare for and faced the judges who could give him a $2,000 scholarship.
With a quick "Buenas tardes" and not a hint of nerves, he tackled his topic: How can education better the Hispanic community? Alberto, back straight and hands gesturing, connected the dots: Schooling brings better jobs, better jobs bring better housing and, of course, more money.
"We will be able to open doors all over. . . . We need to change the stereotype of the Hispanics that are illiterate. The Hispanics who don't go to school," said the Prince William County high school student. "The dishwashing Hispanics."
Alberto's message would have made George Cushman proud. It is the same message Cushman, the development director of the Hispanic College Fund, and scores of volunteers want to send to the 164 Latino teenagers from across the Washington region who attended a three-day Hispanic Youth Symposium at Marymount University in Arlington.
Over the past two days, the students have gone to sessions on Hispanic heroes and college costs. They have heard from Justice Department officials about bomb squad jobs and hospital personnel about work in health care. They have learned to network -- like Alberto, they offer solid handshakes and business cards -- and have bonded in late-night dorm gatherings.
The students were selected based on applications and have at least a C average and proven leadership ability, Cushman said. Nearly half of them will win college scholarships of $500 to $2,000, awarded for such skills as speechmaking and art. Winners will find out today.
Another three-day program begins today at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The event, said Cushman, its organizer, gives the youths a taste of campus life and pushes them toward a place that he said too few Hispanics choose: college. According to Census Bureau data, 11.1 percent of Hispanics 25 and older had completed a college education as of March 2002. By comparison, 27.2 percent of whites had.
"It's a matter of building a legacy for these students by turning them into Hispanic professionals," Cushman said. "As they say in Spanish: Si se puede -- it's possible."
Leaving the Justice Department career session, Starr Acosta, 16, and Fabio Camacho, 17, raved about the fun they were having. Fabio, a student at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School with an iPod cord hanging out of his shorts pocket, said he had traded reggaeton and hip-hop tunes with his new dorm buddies.
Starr, a student at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, talked about the session with college admissions counselors. "I liked the schools so much I actually wrote them on my arm," she said.
Later, across campus, Fabio sat in an engineering session presented by Lockheed Martin and waited for Estefany Carrillo, 15, to build the nose and wings of a Lego airplane, urging her with an "Apurate, vamos, vamos" -- hurry up, let's go, let's go.
Passing it off to him, Estefany said she wasn't wooed by engineering. But she glowed when she talked about picking up new Spanish slang that is not used in her native Ecuador.
"The most exciting thing for me is everyone knows two languages," said Estefany, a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
Outside the cafeteria, five speech contest finalists were hanging out. Alberto said he was pretty sure his speech was far too repetitive.
"But I think I made my point, you know?" he joked.
They all said they had no doubt they would go to college. Alberto, armed with a 4.125 grade-point average and four Advanced Placement classes on his schedule at C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge next year, said he would apply to Harvard and Yale. Juan Garcia, 16, whose mother left school in El Salvador after second grade, said he would go somewhere with a good political science program.
"I'll be the first to graduate in my family," said Juan, a student at Freedom High School in Woodbridge. "It's our priority now."