Latino Empowerment Conference - Moraine Valley Community College “Championing Hispanic Higher Education Success”

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to join you today to share helios’ commitment to latino empowerment. Also, thank you mellissa, for your kind words of introduction. 

My name is paul luna, president and ceo of helios education foundation. I’m honored to be part of this event.  

[the education landscape]

Helios education foundation is a philanthropic organization exclusively dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals in arizona and florida by creating opportunities for success in postsecondary education. 

At no other time in our nation’s history has this mission been more impactful and necessary. 

Empowerment starts with belief…belief starts with vision…and vision starts with daring to dream.  

Open a newspaper on any given day and you’ll find an article on the value of higher education, the connection between education and the economy and the workforce pipeline and the rising costs associated with education.

The dialogue is robust but, i urge you, don’t lose focus on the richness of a postsecondary education.  

[millennial generation]

You are all part of a special generation…the millennial generation. I’m assuming most of you were born in the early to mid-2000s. In many ways, education needs to catch up with your way of thinking.

According to the national council of economic advisors to the white house:

  • millennials are now the largest, most diverse generation in the u.s. population. In fact, many millennials are immigrants or the children of immigrants. 
  • millennials have been shaped by technology. The rest of us are “digital immigrants”! 
  • think about this, in 1980, ibm’s first gigabyte hard drive weighed 550 pounds and cost $40,000. 
  • today, we have access to three terabyte hard drives — 3000 times the size — that weigh under three pounds and cost under $100 dollars. 
  • knowledge is at your fingertips [hold up smartphone].  The search for knowledge begins and ends with google or yahoo or bing or the latest app.
  • did you know that right now, mobile android users have access to over 1.6 million apps, and apple store users can download over 1.5 million apps? 
  • technology has and will continue to change our world. . You have to be academically prepared to seize the opportunities this new world will provide. 
  • but even with all this technology, millennials still value things like community, family and creativity.
  • you are growing up in a world that is vastly different from just 10 or 20 years ago.  
  • you willl likely have more than 10 jobs by the time you are 38 years old.  
  • the top 10 in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist five years ago.
  • the amount of technical information available to you is doubling every two years.

We’re at a new frontier and today’s educational experience can’t be about just gaining knowledge.

The real purpose of education today is to help students understand what to do with the knowledge they have at their fingertips.

Education must prepare students who:

  • are critical thinkers and problem solvers.
  • understand the value of collaboration.
  • have a sense of initiative and even entrepreneurialism.
  • are effective communicators.
  • have a sense of imagination.
  • and most of all, believe in themselves. 

Those are the traits of new leaders, and those are the traits you must acquire.

The global economy demands that students obtain an education beyond high school in order to succeed.  

You are on the precipice of educational opportunities and you must seize those opportunities and pursue and complete a postsecondary education in order to succeed. 

Now, more than ever, efforts are being made to refocus and ensure that every student in america is prepared and, as the theme of our conference indicates, empowered for success.   

Education is the single most impactful tool that a community can share. The knowledge acquired as part of a formal education supersedes ethnicity, socioeconomic background and geography. 

I know. I’m a result of educational empowerment.

[personal story] 

To provide a bit of context for my remarks today, i’d like to tell you a story.  It’s perhaps similar to your own.  It starts in a small copper mining town in miami, arizona. Miami is about an hour and a half east of phoenix. It’s a copper mining town, and it’s where i grew up.  

My mom didn’t graduate high school, and she got pregnant with her first child during her junior year. She cleaned houses for a living along with my grandmother. 

My parents got married young and worked very hard.  Both of them – my father in particular – set high expectations for me and my sister to do well in school and to value our education.   

A college education was never an option for my parents.  My dad started working in the mines right out of high school.  He worked there for 45 years.   

But what my parents lacked in terms of formal education, they made up for in many other ways.  They had a strong work ethic.  They had strong values and beliefs and they taught both my sister and me the value of respect.  

My dad, in particular, was a visionary thinker with an uncommon amount of common sense.  He taught me about the importance of having options and taking advantage of opportunities.  

Every year, from the time i turned eight years old, my dad would take me to the copper mine…into the smelter where he worked.  

And he would tell me, “you have options in your life.  You can work with me here, or you can go to college.  You have options, but it’s your choice.”

I was fortunate to have a baseball coach take an interest in me and encourage me to apply to stanford university. That coach saw something in me that i had not yet seen in myself. 

He brought me the application and I brought it home… and there it sat…for several days. 

My father questioned why the application was still incomplete, so i explained that i was probably not a competitive applicant… so why go through the process of completing it? 

There and then my father taught me a lesson that i value to this day….it’s the lesson of respect. 

I owed it to my baseball coach…out of respect for his efforts…to complete the application. Whether i was admitted or not, i had to show respect. 

I completed the application and was admitted to stanford. I have to admit, though, i struggled at stanford. 

I was unprepared academically, socially and financially.  I was a first generation college kid coming from a small copper mining town in Arizona.  I was competing with students who came from some of the best prep schools in the country.  

I was intimidated, and I quickly learned that the university didn’t have supports to help students like me.  I had to self-navigate in order to make it through.

{insert anecdotes from college experience}

I was fortunate to have my parents (especially my dad), as role models who cared about my future and took a vested interest in helping me succeed in achieving my college degree. 

But even they had their limitations.  Having never attended college themselves, they couldn’t help me navigate this new and unfamiliar environment.

I survived…and, despite the odds, I graduated with a degree in civil engineering.  

Life changed for me when i graduated from stanford, not when I got into stanford.

I wonder how many other students were like me, holding a tremendous opportunity in our hands.  Struggling to finish.  And how many other students watched the empowerment that education brings slip through their fingers? 

[about helios education foundation]

Today, I am fortunate to work for an organization that believes education changes lives and strengthens communities.

In addition to that belief, we believe:

  • education is an investment, not an expense.
  • every student, regardless of zip code, deserves a high-quality education.
  • and we can’t do it alone.  We need true collaboration and partnership to achieve our mission.

At helios education foundation, we are dedicated to creating opportunities for every individual in arizona and florida to succeed in postsecondary education.

We were founded on the belief that education directly ties to the public good.   And we believe postsecondary education in particular has the ability to transform lives, break the cycle of poverty, open the door to opportunities and prepare students to compete and succeed in today’s global economy.

Through our work, we have learned that by surrounding students with a high -expectations, college-going culture and ensuring they are academically prepared, they are more likely to graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and career.

Those students are more likely to enter and complete postsecondary education.

We work under the premise that postsecondary education is a gateway to intellectual growth and diverse careers and that postsecondary education also provides the kind of skills and knowledge that are vital to success in today’s global economy, including the ability to create, innovate and think critically to solve complex challenges.  

However, the college completion rate among students is not in keeping with what will be needed in the future.  

According to the u.s. census bureau, only 29.3 percent of americans hold a bachelor’s degree.  This, at a time when the center for workforce development at georgetown university indicates that by the year 2025 60 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.  

Clearly, individuals with certificates and degrees will be empowered to effectively compete for the opportunities ahead - while those without, will not. 

The millennial generation can be the generation that changes all that. In fact, this generation is starting to show some gains over previous ones:

  • more millennials have a college degree than any other generation of young adults. In 2013, 47 percent of 25 to 34 year-olds received a postsecondary degree and an additional 18 percent had completed some postsecondary education.
  • millennials are also more likely to attend graduate school than previous generations.
  • between 2000 and 2013, the 18- to 24-year-old population rose from 27.3 million to 31.5 million. 
  • the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college also was higher in 2013 than in 2000, increasing from 35.5 percent to 39.9 percent. 
  • all of these gains should be applauded. They are contributing to what we hope will become a cultural shift toward creating a college-going culture for all students, regardless of their background or post-high school aspirations. 
  • but these gains aren’t enough. We still need students like you, each and every one of you, to prepare, pursue and complete a postsecondary education.
  • every individual will need that education in order to be successful in this global, technology-savvy economy. 

Helios is invested in the success of all students and our emphasis is on helping traditionally underserved populations - especially those students who are first-generation, low-income, minority and from rural communities.  

This is based on the demographic data that illustrates the changing face of our education system.  

In the coming years, latinos will become an increasingly larger share of our country’s leaders and workers, and will, in some states, including my home state of arizona, eventually comprise the majority.  

Census and other research data tells us that, nationally, the hispanic population is growing more quickly than the non-hispanic white population.  

In Arizona, latino children make up the largest percentage in our k-12 education system; while in florida hispanic students represent over 30 percent of the state’s k-12 student population. 

It is also a fact that in arizona, in particular, the vast majority of students in underserved communities are latino, and they represent a growing majority in the education pipeline.

Despite some gains, these and other underrepresented populations, still struggle against barriers to educational achievement.  

While there is data to suggest that many latino students are still leaving our schools unable to meet basic college and career expectations, the cultural value of a college education remains high among latino families:

  • a full 64 percent believe that a college degree is a major part of the american dream.
  • in that same survey, 7 in 10 latinos say education and hard work are critical to climbing the economic ladder.
  • and, more than 6 in 10 believe that their children will be better off than they are…

Empowerment starts with belief…belief starts with vision…and vision starts with daring to dream.  

[first generation students]

The challenges of completing a postsecondary degree are not new, particularly for first-generation college students.  

As i said, i was a first generation college student many years ago but there is a new awareness of this category of student.  In fact, even the term, first generation is relatively new.  

Research shows that these students know less about how to get into and pay for college.  And first generation college students are less likely to take the tough high school courses that are needed to prepare them for college.   

In addition to these issues, there are other ancillary issues that these students face, which may not be quite as obvious.  

Many first generation college students face unexpected pressures from their community.  Regrettably, some students realize, not everyone back home wants them to succeed.  In addition, many students face the reality of knowing that one year of their education costs more than their entire family’s annual income.  And finally, first generation students often don’t know how to handle it when it gets tough.  

And, well-meaning parents might unintentionally discourage their student.  

A first generation student may call home and say “i’m having a tough time, these classes are hard and i’m not doing well.”  A parent who has been through the college experience understands that there is a transition period, and it’s hard, but you have to stick with it and be determined. 

While a parent who hasn’t been through the college experience might think that their child isn’t capable of succeeding at that institution and suggests they return home or choose a different educational path.  


So much success in education can be attributed to what happens in the early grades. How many of you can remember your third grade homeroom teacher?

Research now tells us that success in the early grades is key to long term educational success. 

We know that you can’t wait until a student graduates high school to prepare her for success in postsecondary education.  That’s why at helios, we champion starting in the earliest years.  We have an intentional focus on early grade success.  

We know that third grade reading is a critical benchmark for student success.  A student who reads at grade level by the end of third grade is more likely to graduate high school on time and succeed in postsecondary education.

Increased rigor and relevance in the k-12 classroom will help prepare students like you for the college experience.  Too many students require remediation when they enter college because they didn’t get adequate preparation in high school.


Helios also works hard to provide opportunities for access – especially among the underserved populations that i mentioned earlier.  

We partner with various higher education institutions and other organizations to provide financial supports to students.  


But preparation and access aren’t going to work unless postsecondary institutions provide the structured supports that students need once they arrive on the college campus.  

Too often, critical student supports, such as academic advising, mentoring, planning and family engagement are disconnected from the student’s academic experience.  This can be especially impactful for those first generation students that we spoke about earlier.

I’m excited to share that in addition to my role at helios, i have the great fortune of serving on the boards of two national organizations that are working tirelessly to ensure education access and success for all. 

The first is america’s promise alliance whose work is centered around five key promises. One of them is focused on effective education and ensuring all students are prepared to succeed in work and life. 

America’s promise alliance has partnered with pearson to form the grad-nation state activation initiative which works to increase high school graduation rates to 90 percent. 

America’s promise understands the changing demographics in the country and is working with partners across this nation to help close the academic achievement gaps that often impact low-income, minority students more than any other group. 

I also serve on the national college access network board of directors which is tackling college access issues head-on through nationwide networks of organizations like helios education foundation, universities and colleges, nonprofit organizations and others to ensure all students, and especially minority and underrepresented students, have a pathway to success in postsecondary education. 

These are just a few examples of the advocates out there, working on your behalf, to help you succeed in college and career. But you still must do your part in seizing every opportunity, working through your academic challenges, graduating high school and completing a postsecondary education. 

[closing comments]

As i close my remarks today, i want to 

Share some advice for the millennial generation. 

It’s advice i got a long time ago, but it still holds true today. 

These words of wisdom are from another very important person in my life, my first mentor and dear friend, ronnie lopez. 

[comment on relationship with ronnie]

Ronnie taught me the importance of:

  • shining your shoes (market research to prove it).
  • dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
  • hang out with people who make more money than you (true for athletes as well, play against better competition) they will lift you up.
  • read the newspaper (online is fine), be informed. 
  • learn to golf- tool for business. 
  • respect the past- (don't forget that others came before you and created many of the opportunities you now enjoy).
  • and have a vision for the future 

Other things ronnie taught me:

  • the importance of networking, and how to do it.

I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity to prepare yourselves to succeed in college and career…and to become the future leaders our country needs…

Again, empowerment starts with belief…belief starts with vision…and vision starts with daring to dream.  

Thank you. 


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