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Published October 07, 2022
Latinos are the fastest-growing population in Wyoming, and education is important to that portion of the Cowboy State’s community, especially female students.
That is why University of Wyoming Professor Cecilia “CC” Aragón knows the impact the Wyoming Latina Youth Conference (WLYConference) has had on the state’s pre-teen and high school-age Latina students.
“It is well known that women are the change makers in our culture,” Aragón says. “Latinos have had the most demographic gains of any other group measured, reaching nearly a consistent 10 percent or more of Wyoming’s population share over the last three decades, especially in areas such as Jackson Hole, Rawlins, Green River, Rock Springs, Laramie, Cheyenne and Casper.”
A record 325 Latina students -- representing 22 schools in nearly a dozen Wyoming communities -- will attend this fall’s WLYConference Oct. 14-15 on the UW campus. The annual conference features a welcome dinner banquet; cultural performances; educational workshops focused on arts, humanities, financial literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields; and informational presentations on mental and physical well-being.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Exploring the 5C’s of Leadership in the 21st Century: Connections, Community, Conservation, Creativity and Compassion.”
The keynote speaker is Guillermina “Gina” Núñez-Mchiri, an applied anthropologist who promotes service learning and engaged scholarship efforts on the U.S.-Mexico border. She is a new dean at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley and is author of the book “Community Engagement and High Impact Practices in Higher Education.”
Now in its 22nd year, the WLYConference is open to all Wyoming fifth through 12th grade students who are Latinx, Hispanic, Indigenous, Afro-Latinx and mixed-blooded female identifying. In 2016, the WLYConference was instituted and transferred from the governor’s office to UW as an educational pipeline program. In 2022, it officially became the Wyoming Latina Youth Center (WLYCenter), with many programs offered, including those focused on college leadership, outdoor education, translation, community engagement and service learning in the state.
The annual conference is housed within the new WLYCenter -- a nonprofit organization focused on empowering young Latinas through mentorship, leadership and academic success. Funding for the center on the UW campus is provided through a significant grant from the Rockefeller Foundation awarded to Aragón.
The grant provides funding for undergraduate and graduate work-study students and interns, and it supports travel for UW students for professional development, graduate school applications and professional conferences. A faculty associate director, social media/digital marketing specialist and an outdoor coordinator have been hired through the Rockefeller Foundation award.
Since 2016, the WLYCenter has helped between 15-25 young Latinas enroll each fall semester as UW freshmen. The center has helped an additional 15-25 Latinx transfer students adjust to UW campus life.
“We are following their progress at UW. They become our WLYConference college leaders/mentors throughout their four years of college,” Aragón says. “Their education rates are enormous. We are proud to say that 98 percent of our students who participate in the center and in the conference graduate from UW.”
The center seeks to address critical issues related to the Latina education pipeline and to provide resources and recommendations to improve educational access and opportunities for Wyoming Latina students, says Aragón, who is a professor of theater and dance and Latina/o studies, and faculty affiliate in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and the College of Education. She adds that Latino schooling in the U.S. and in Wyoming has long been characterized by high dropout rates and low college completion rates, noting that “this attainment gap” is due to lack of resources and financial support.
“The cultural aspect is that women change the mindset in the culture, and they are now placing a higher value on education as part of the cultural wealth and cultural aspirations -- to finish high school and get a degree in higher education,” Aragón says. “Overall, in Wyoming, Latinos say that a college education is important for getting ahead in life. Latina girls are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country and, specifically, in Wyoming.”
She adds that the annual conference strives to successfully move through the critical transitions between middle school, high school, college and graduate school. Each year, the program provides information to high school juniors and seniors on how to fill out a college application, including availability of scholarships and how to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form.
Since the conference was founded in 2000, Aragón says it has produced a “significant number” of UW graduates who have completed master’s degrees and doctoral programs -- several who have completed law school and medical programs.
For more information, email Aragón at firstname.lastname@example.org.