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A young student attending to the Latina Youth Leadership Conference smiling

Celebrating 25 Years of Empowering Young Latina Women at UNC and Across the Nation

Celebrando 25 años empoderando a jóvenes latinas en UNC y en todo el país

Students host annual Latina Youth Leadership Conference to inspire young Latinas to pursue their academic and professional aspirations with confidence.

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The University of Northern Colorado’s (UNC) César Chávez Cultural Center and the Kappa Chapter of Lambda Theta Nu Sorority, Inc, mark a significant milestone this year by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its groundbreaking, student-run Latina Youth Leadership Conference (LYLC).  

The celebration is expected to draw about 200 students from school districts in Colorado and includes workshops focused on self-esteem, leadership, education and cultural awareness plus panel discussions from previous leaders and keynote speakers. This year’s event will be held on April 5, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at UNC’s University Center.   

Since the first event in 1997, the conference has focused on promoting the empowerment of young Latina students, to help them in their academic pursuits in high school and beyond. Ever since, the conference has impacted more than 8,000 young girls from across the state in the last 25 years. 

The annual conference was originally founded and is organized by the Kappa Chapter of the Lambda Theta Nu Sorority, Inc., the first Latina sorority in the state, with the support of the university’s César Chávez Cultural Center (CCCC). Since its founding, the conference has always been organized, coordinated and funded by the award-winning Kappa Chapter. The idea for the conference came from the visionary leadership of Carmen Rivera, Ph.D., then leader of the Kappa Chapter of Lambda Theta Nu, in collaboration with Vicki Leal-Larsen, director of the CCCC at the time. The celebratory event was born out of a pressing concern by partners in the Greeley-Evans School District 6 about a growing decline in academic engagement among middle and high school Latinas.  

"Twenty-five years ago, we recognized that the demographics of the Hispanic-Latino population were rapidly growing in the local school district. However, that landscape looked very different in college,” said Leal-Larsen. “Schools had a lot of Hispanic-Latino students, but at UNC, Hispanic-Latino college students were only 8% of the total student body. With the conference and other efforts at the CCCC, we wanted to be sure that there were equitable opportunities for this growing population. We wanted to open up frontiers of possibilities for our community.” 

The event takes on an even greater meaning this year. UNC was recently designated a Hispanic Serving Institution with more than 25% of its students identifying as Hispanic-Latine. The university is committed to building a community that promotes advancement and social equity so that everyone in its community feels welcome and celebrated. 

“The HSI designation is truly inspiring. However, our communities still present lower graduation rates, [so] there is still work to do to have more representation,” said Leal-Larsen.   

Over the past quarter-century, the LYLC has evolved into a national movement, that now encompasses the same conference at chapters across different universities in the country.

These events serve as platforms for young Latinas to access mentorship, educational workshops and networking opportunities, designed to foster a sense of community and empowerment. 

This celebratory event builds community since the conference relies a lot on important community alliances. For example, Greeley-Evans School District 6 played a key role in previous years. Currently, community members from Hispanic Women of Weld County are involved, as well as UNC students, Greek organizations, alumni and staff members, with significant support coming from UNC’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion under Vice President Tobias Guzmán.  

Patricia Escobar, current associate director and former long-time director of the CCCC  and a key ally of the conference, emphasized the importance of the conference's ongoing impact, stating the goal of the LYLC was never just to host a one-time event. 

“We wanted to create a sustainable initiative that would uplift generations of young women to come.”

- Patricia Escobar

“The overall goal of the conference is so that the girls can imagine a future for themselves. That’s why it is so important that this conference is organized by the same students, because that way, they can see themselves, they can have role models that look like them,” said Escobar.  

For Escobar, representation is more than just seeing people who look like you in important leadership roles but is about helping young girls think about their futures as something they have full agency over. 

“A lot of girls do not spend time dreaming. They just assume their lives are going to be like what they know, and sometimes all they know is to become mothers,” said Escobar. “When they see other women like them, deciding to pursue a professional path, they can think of themselves that way.” 

Escobar also believes that it is important to show the strength of the Latina community, particularly of their young women.  

“A lot of these professional women that we see now in leadership roles once came to the LYLC,” she said. “And it is a great satisfaction to know that the conference changed their lives because they could see themselves as leaders since they came that day in April to our conference.”  

This year’s conference is led by senior Business Management major Ailin Amaro Martínez and senior Music major Diana Muñoz. They both attended the conference when they were young and feel proud that they are in the position now to help other girls pursue their dreams.  

“I remember growing up in a predominately white school,” Amaro Martínez said. “When I saw other girls who looked like me attending the conference, I knew this was my community. 

“Listening to the presenters helped me to imagine my own future. I’m sure participating in this conference gave me the confidence I needed to continue my studies and pursue higher education. I feel that now I am responsible to share that with the next generations of Latina women.”  

From its humble beginnings to its current nationwide reach, the LYLC continues to inspire and empower young Latinas to dream and pursue their academic and professional aspirations with confidence. 

As UNC prepares to host this year's anniversary conference, Escobar expressed her pride in the event's enduring legacy.  

"It's incredible to see how far we've come in 25 years," she said. "The impact of the Latina Youth Leadership Conference extends far beyond the walls of our university, shaping the lives of countless young Latinas across the nation."

UNC students Ailin Amaro Martínez and Diana Muñoz talk with Bear in Mind podcast's host Katie Nord about co-directing the Latina Youth Leadership Conference. They discuss the anniversary of the conference, its relevance nationwide, their own experiences and why representation is so important.

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