In Spanish, “Camino” means path.
And, at the graduation banquet for the inaugural Camino to Success summer camp at Eastern Kentucky University, it was a path marked with tears, as some of the 40 participants tried to explain what the five-day event had meant to them. In several instances, as a speaker began to choke with emotion, fellow campers and other audience members would snap their fingers in unison as a show of support.
The high school juniors and seniors came from all over the country – Kentucky, Cincinnati, Chicago and Miami – but they share a common Latino heritage. And by the time they departed the Richmond campus, the participants had learned much more about the higher education opportunities that await them, and, more importantly, about themselves.
Perhaps Noel Martinez, elected vice president by his camp peers, put it best when he said the event showed him “how to find the light in the darkness. It was a very, very good experience … probably the best thing I’ve done in my 17-year life. I’m very proud to be here, and I hope you are very proud of me.”
The campers, selected from a pool of 114 applicants based on academic record, an essay and recommendations, enjoyed mock college classes; cultural projects incorporating theater, poetry and visual art; self-care workshops, an academic showcase, recreation, a Skype session with noted Chicano civil rights activist Bobby Verdugo, who visited EKU last year for the dedication of a tutoring and mentoring center in his honor; and much more.
Abril Torak, a Mexico City native elected camp president, explained: “There’s nobody like me at my school, except my sister and two others. This was a place you could be yourself. I never felt that until I came here.”
Torak plans to major in nursing and minor in military science when she returns to EKU as a freshman in Fall 2019. She’ll be surrounded on her educational journey by more than 450 Latino students and find additional support via the Bobby Verdugo Bilingual Peer Mentoring and Tutoring Center and an active Latino Student Association.
She’s also entering a university where many Latino students have distinguished themselves inside and outside the classroom. During the past academic year alone, Omar Salinas Chacon was named the nation’s top Honors student by the National Collegiate Honors Council, and Ivonne Gonzalez was crowned EKU Homecoming Queen and addressed the graduating class of the College of Health Sciences at spring commencement.
“I’ll never forget this place,” Torak said of Eastern.
Camp leaders, too, will long remember the week and the camp’s inaugural class.
“Even at 2 a.m., we were still processing the day,” said Dr. Abbey Poffenberger, chair of the EKU Department of Languages, Cultures and Humanities and a camp director.
The audience, which also included family members of many of the campers as well as camp workers and University faculty and staff, also heard from Brett Morris, executive director of enrollment management at EKU; and from two Latino members of the EKU Board of Regents, Juan Castro and Lewis Diaz, each of whom delivered remarks in Spanish.
Camp facilitators included current EKU students and graduates.