By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Kelly Bartling stood at the podium inside a packed room at the Younes Conference Center as the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference got underway Friday morning.
She asked the audience to pause for a moment and look around.
“You are the future,” she said.
For the past two decades, the University of Nebraska at Kearney has brought students from diverse backgrounds together to share this message and inspire the next generation of leaders.
“We’re proud to host this conference where we celebrate you and the opportunities that you will have to make Nebraska a stronger state and make our country and our world a better place,” said Bartling, vice chancellor for enrollment management and marketing at UNK. “That may sound like a lot, but we know that you’re capable of it.”
About 500 students and staff from high schools and colleges across Nebraska and Kansas attended the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, a UNK event that promotes leadership, higher education and professional development through a variety of workshops and activities.
Students participated in breakout sessions, learned about UNK departments and academic programs and listened to a keynote address from Latino actor Pepe Serna, who’s appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows during his decades-long career. Current and former Lopers also shared their success stories.
“It’s amazing to have a conference like this where you’re a high school student and you can see the possibility of going to college, even if it’s not really in your background or it’s not really something that’s been a family tradition, but it’s something that you want because you know that’s what can make you successful,” said Manuel Andazola, a teacher at Bryan Elementary School in Lexington.
Andazola attended UNK when the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference was getting off the ground. As the conference chair and president of the Hispanic Student Association, he raised money to support the fledgling event and visited area high schools to drum up interest among students.
A lot has changed since those early years, when attendance was a little over 100.
“This is beautiful,” Andazola said Friday while standing inside the Younes Conference Center. “This is the dream all of us had when we started this conference.”
A first-generation college student and charter member of the Sigma Lambda Beta multicultural fraternity, Andazola earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with an English as a second language (ESL) endorsement in 2008. He was among the more than 60 alumni who returned for the conference’s 20th anniversary.
“Out of all these students, if one of them goes to college, then we’ve met our purpose of what this conference is supposed to do,” Andazola said. “It’s not only making our communities a better place, but it’s making everything better for future generations.”
Like Andazola, Enedina Manriquez Camarena is also a first-generation college graduate whose family came to the United States for a better life.
Because of financial concerns, the DACA recipient didn’t know whether she’d be able to attend college; however, that changed when she received a scholarship from the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion. Manriquez Camarena was involved in numerous organizations and events during her time at UNK, including the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference.
“I’ve come a long way because of the people at UNK and this conference who pushed me and helped me achieve my goals,” said Manriquez Camarena, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish education with an ESL endorsement in 2019 and a master’s degree in school counseling last December.
Manriquez Camarena currently works as a counselor at Omaha South High School. She brought 30 students to last week’s conference, introducing them to the same support system she had.
“I want my students to see how important it is for them to seek opportunities, especially in higher education, and feel like they have a community here,” she said.