His family fled the violence of El Salvador – his father and grandfather were once kidnapped for ransom – for the U.S. in 2001.
They could hardly pay their first winter heating bill – and that was in Nashville, Tennessee. Young Omar Salinas-Chacon attended a school where no one looked or talked like him, and his family faced such discrimination they wondered if they had a future in the land of their dreams.
What a difference a few years, a drive to succeed and a helping hand from the higher education community make. On Thursday, Oct. 15, Salinas-Chacon, now a sophomore at Eastern Kentucky University, found himself at the White House, the only Kentucky college student invited to attend a reception in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event also honored the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH).
The invitation came just a few months after Salinas-Chacon made a lasting impression on WHIEEH Director Alejandra Ceja at a roundtable discussion in Lexington that was part of the annual Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp (LLCEC), co-hosted by EKU and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Ceja invited Salinas-Chacon to accompany Erin Howard, LLCEC director and director of Latino Outreach at BCTC, to the gala event.
“From six years ago, I went from being terrified of the White House and everything it represented to now being invited to the White House with open arms,” Salinas-Chacon said. “That’s what this means to me: a symbol of hope that the world is really changing and, despite what we may hear on the news, it is changing for the better.”
Maybe that explains why he was so excited not just to meet President Obama and shake his hand, but also to meet other Latinos as well as allies “working around the nation helping Latinos receive a higher education.”
Salinas-Chacon said he is grateful for the efforts of Howard at BCTC and several at EKU for doing just that on their respective campuses.
As LLCEC director, Howard, who is also teaching a course at EKU on Immigration and Social Justice, “didn’t just show us academics, history, culture and financial aid. She showed us what is love, courage, compassion, forgiveness and pride, among other things.”
Then there’s an EKU trio of the “strongest and most compassionate women I have met, aside from my mother, of course”: Dr. Abbey Poffenberger, chair of the Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities; Dr. Socorro Zaragoza, Spanish professor and Latino Student Association faculty adviser; and Liliana Gomez de Coss, the University’s full-time Latino recruitment specialist.
“They don’t just push you to your limit academically,” Salinas-Chacon said. “They push you to be the best person you know you can be. They challenge you to learn about your culture and yourself. They challenge you to push the limit of what people think of you. At the same time, they were the ones to ground me back to earth by asking questions like ‘Have you eaten today? Do you have enough to eat? How was your weekend?
“Liliana is just an inspiration to be around. She went through more hardships than I did when it came to higher education, and she made it work. Now she recruits and helps retain students who were in her situation a few years ago. She even goes out of her way to help students who may not even end up going to EKU. She is the type of person I can point to and say, ‘I want to be like her when I grow up.’”
Younger Latinos might be saying something similar even now about Salinas-Chacon, a 2014 graduate of Louisville Eastern High School whose first exposure to LLCEC and EKU came in 2011, two years after his family moved to Kentucky.
“Omar immediately stood out for his intellect and engaging demeanor,” Poffenberger recalled, “as well as for his humility.”
He’s still standing out. Even though he’s only in his second year, it might be easier to list what he hasn’t accomplished at EKU than what he has. Salinas-Chacon:
· with a double major in Spanish and political science, has a 4.0 GPA as a member of the University’s academically rigorous Honors Program, with which he has made several presentations in state, regional and national honors conferences.
· is a member of EKU’s nationally renowned Mock Trial Team, which finished 11th nationally in 2015.
· works as an EKU GURU, a group of elite students who assist in the retention of students. Among other responsibilities, he tutors students in Spanish, Japanese, Honors, and essay writing.
· was elected as a senator with the Student Government Association, where he serves on the Students Rights Committee.
· mentors first-year students in the Freshman Academy for Diverse Students.
· is a student worker in EKU’s Latino Success Center, where he assists Latino students with navigating college life and academics.
· assists as a facilitator with the LLCEC each summer, teaching mock classes and assisting with camp logistics.
· volunteers his time with the Kentucky Dream Coalition, the Kentucky chapter of United We Dream, the largest immigrant rights group run by students and community leaders; and at Cardinal Valley Elementary School, Lexington, where he serves an interpreter for the largely Latino population. “I became my school’s interpreter from kindergarten through eighth grade, and I do not want an elementary student to have to interpret like I did.”
· has earned the Medina Endowed Scholarship for his efforts at improving the diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion on campus; and the Karyn Kuhn Yates Memorial Scholarship for his leadership in academics, extracurricular activities and outreach efforts.
Little wonder Poffenberger ranks Salinas-Chacon “among the top 1 percent of students who I have worked with over the past 20 years. EKU is now emerging as a leader in the state for Latino student success, and Omar is certainly at the forefront of these efforts. He serves as a mentor and role model to Latino and immigrant students at EKU and around the state. He returns every year to the camp to give back by helping other students navigate the college experience so that they also achieve their goals.”
For Salinas-Chacon, it’s simply a matter of paying it forward.
“I know plenty of students who are in my situation,” he said, “and they should be able to reach the same position I have, but they don’t receive the same opportunities I did. In a way I was lucky, and I don’t luck to be the only reason why someone receives an education. I want their hard work to make them reach that goal.”
And maybe even reach the White House.