Seventeen years ago, almost to the day, Omar Salinas Chacón entered the United States through Atlanta, Georgia.
His working-class parents, escaping a bloody civil war, gang violence and extreme poverty in El Salvador, fled to America with little more than a dream: that Omar and his brother would one day enjoy “a better life than they did ... not only live, but thrive.”
They call them “Dreamers,” these children who were brought here at a young age and, for Salinas Chacón, yet another dream came true recently in Atlanta, where, competing against leading honors students from across the U.S., the senior political science and Spanish major was named Student of the Year by the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC).
Salinas Chacón doesn’t shy away from talking about his DACA status and his uncertain future in the U.S., or the irony of winning such a prestigious national honor back where his American journey began.
“Atlanta is a city that demonstrates what the New South of this century is going to be like,” he said. “It’s a city where immigrants from all over the world do not clash, but mix, live and thrive with the traditional South. I grew up in a time right after 9/11 and a wave of anti-immigration sentiment hit the country. I was not encouraged to speak Spanish. I was told that I was ‘other.’ I was told that my culture and heritage did not contribute and will not contribute anything to this country. I was told that at best I was but a servant.”
So Salinas Chacón, who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, set out to “be the person my family needed when I was younger. I see families like mine get overlooked all the time. I want to be that person who helps them lift up themselves and their communities because, at the end of the day, we are all part of the community.”
In the years he has been at Eastern, Salinas Chacón has seen the Latino community at EKU grow rapidly. One classmate, Ivonne Gonzalez, was recently crowned Homecoming queen. Another, Ivan Olivas, was one of three Eastern students this past year to earn Gilman Scholarships for Study Abroad.
According to Dr. David Coleman, director of EKU’s Honors Program, Salinas Chacón is believed to be the only student nationally to participate in a presentation at each of the past four NCHC annual conferences. Each year, he was a member of panels within the diversity thread. This year, he, along with classmates Ivan Olivas, Jeniffer Paxtle-Granjeno and Andrea Patino discussed “Leading from the Margins: Justice through Activism” and how the Honors Program has honed their leadership skills.
“Honors is the great equalizer in my life,” Salinas Chacón said. “Society and the law says I am not equal because of my immigration status. In Honors, I can be my highest potential because it does not discriminate. In other parts of my life, I can work hard and sometimes even harder than my peers, but I would never be able to come out on top. Honors has allowed me to be the person I want to be.”
But his “Eastern Experience” is hardly limited to Honors. Salinas Chacón has served for three years as an Honors Ambassador recruiter, and has held numerous offices within the Student Government Association. He has also served as captain of the University’s nationally prominent mock trial team, volunteered as a Spanish language translator and intake contact for the Maxwell Street Legal Aid Clinic in Lexington, and in 2015 was invited by the White House to serve as Kentucky’s lone college student representative at a national Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in Washington, D.C. He carries a 3.84 GPA despite several challenging Honors seminars.
“Omar stands as a paragon example of exactly what is at stake in this policy debate,” said Dr. David Coleman, director of EKU’s Honors Program, which includes 19 Latino students, nearly 4 percent of the total of 498. “Although always a stellar student, he has because of his immigration status been ineligible to apply for many of the nationally competitive fellowships for which he otherwise would have been extremely competitive.
“As a student, scholar and a citizen of this world, Omar exemplifies the very best spirit of Honors education and the NCHC,” Coleman wrote in his nomination letter. “Regardless of how the DACA debate evolves at the congressional level, I am confident that Omar will move forward toward his goal of becoming a transformative leader in the fields of immigration and human rights law, whether within the United States or elsewhere.”
Noting the influence of his classmates and friends, his EKU mentors and especially his parents, Salinas Chacón is quick to point out that he stands “on the shoulders of giants.”
“My parents were 25 when they took two young children from El Salvador to a country they did not know anything about,” he said. “I never take that sacrifice for granted.”
He remembers a diet of mostly instant soup for a year because it was all his family could afford at first. He remembers his parents being unable to pay their winter heating bill – in Nashville. He remembers attending school where no one looked or talked like him, and the discrimination that prompted his parents to doubt for a time whether they made the right choice for themselves and their children.
But, mostly, Salinas Chacón remembers the kindness that others have shown him.
“I want people to realize that the smallest acts of kindness they give people have a ripple effect on the community,” he said. “I would not be here today without the kindness and mentorship of others. Now, more than ever and more than anything, we need people who are willing to be kind.”
Bottom photo: EKU's Latino panel at the recent NCHC featured, from left, Ivan Olivas, Jeniffer Paxtle-Granjeno, Andrea Patino and Omar Salinas Chacon.