In Robin Williams’ final scene as an actor, portraying a wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt who comes alive in “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” a security guard played by Ben Stiller admits to his hero, “I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow.”
Williams/Roosevelt leans in ever so slightly and responds simply, “How exciting.”
As he nears the end of a remarkable four years as an undergraduate student and awaits his next adventure at Eastern Kentucky University, Omar Salinas Chacon finds his own life playing out like that Hollywood script.
Salinas Chacon, an Honors Scholar as a double major in political science and Spanish, recently received the Dean’s Award of Merit from the EKU College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, presented annually at the University’s Scholars Assembly to one outstanding senior. It is just the latest of many honors for a DACA recipient whose parents escaped a bloody civil war in El Salvador to pursue a brighter future for their children in America.
“I’m not sure what my future is going to look like,” he said, “but every time I think about it, I think about (that movie scene).”
His immediate future plans include pursuing a master’s of public administration (MPA) degree at EKU, a decision that obviously pleases one of his closest Colonel mentors, Dr. Lynnette Noblitt, chair of the Department of Government and Economics and one of his coaches on the University’s highly successful mock trial team.
“I’m so happy he’s not leaving us quite yet,” said Noblitt, fighting back tears. “I’m not quite ready to say goodbye. Omar is one of those students whom it’s an honor and privilege to get to teach.”
Dr. Abbey Poffenberger, chair of the Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities, first met Salinas Chacon when, as a Louisville teen, he attended a Latino leadership camp on the Richmond campus.
“What stood out immediately was that he was wearing a coat and tie at a summer camp,” Poffenberger said with a laugh. “He was unforgettable and very endearing.”
That first impression was a lasting one.
“He excelled immediately (at EKU),” Poffenberger recalled. “Omar is driven by a desire to learn everything he can and to capitalize on every opportunity. (He) truly embodies what is great about EKU as a School of Opportunity.”
And Salinas Chacon certainly made the most of every opportunity. In fact, his abilities and scholarship, as well as his passion for making a positive difference in the lives of others, came to be known far beyond the confines of the Richmond campus. In 2015, he was invited by the White House to serve as Kentucky’s lone college representative at a national Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in Washington, D.C. Then, last fall, Salinas Chacon was named Student of the Year by the National Collegiate Honors Council.
After accepting the award, which included a plaque and $1,000, Salinas Chacon said, after all the struggles his parents and grandparents had endured, he had "no excuses” for not persevering and succeeding.
“They always instilled in me the idea of learning,” he said.
As he grew into adulthood, Salinas Chacon came to realize the truth behind the age-old adage “It takes a village to raise a child.” He also learned that “family isn’t just blood. I also have a scholarship family.”
For Salinas Chacon, that family started to grow in elementary school with a teacher who patiently taught him how to read, though she had no English as a Second Language training.
“I got to meet great people who took a chance on me,” he said. “When I got here at Eastern, I saw what it means to be at a School of Opportunity.”
So, even though his future is somewhat uncertain because of his DACA status, Salinas Chacon, who his professors declare won’t take no for an answer, remains optimistic.
“Even when it’s dark, there’s always a light somewhere,” he said.
Like the final words that Williams’ character spoke in that final scene of his final film, “Smile, my boy, it’s sunrise.”