USA Today: Young Latinos Dogged & Determined

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These men and women are reinventing themselves to thrive in a turbulent economy.

IT’S LUNCH TIME AT THE JOHN F. KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, but instead of reaching for her keys, Jeanette Silvas grabs her backpack.

Every moment counts for Silvas, who works as an executive administrative assistant while attending school full-time. She spends her lunch hour in an empty conference room down the hall from her office, picking at a salad while poring over engineering textbooks.

No stranger to school, Silvas originally wanted to be a teacher and earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education from the University of Florida.

“Two of my aunts are teachers, and my mother’s aunt is a principal,” she says. “I had my heart set on being a teacher since I was in third grade.”

Midway through her master’s program, Silvas had an opportunity to experience what it’s really like to manage a classroom. She hated it, but decided she was too far into her master’s program to stop.

After graduating in 2006, she worked as a tutor at learning center. When the economy tanked, her hours were cut and she began applying for other jobs. After searching for months with no luck, Silvas accepted a sales job at a furniture store to generate income while she continued to search for career opportunities. As the recession deepened, fewer people wanted to spend on furniture, and Silvas was laid off.

Unemployed for six months, Silvas applied to any job she could find. She drove to  career fairs throughout Florida and distributed her resume to anyone who would accept it. She faxed her information to schools across the state. She kept hearing the same thing-the schools had to lay off teachers, and if anyone was getting hired, it would be them first.

“My parents raised me to work hard in high school so that I could get accepted to college and earn a degree. I always thought that a college degree meant that you could get a good job,” Silvas says. “I felt rejected. No one was calling, and I kept asking myself what I did wrong.”

When she finally got a call from a NASA contractor about secretarial opening, Silvas jumped at the opportunity. Sure it wasn’t the job she was anticipating or the pay she was expecting, but it was a job.

“I was grateful to get my foot in the door, and believed that if I worked hard, I could move up,” she says.

Move up she did. Silvas didn’t let her job description define her. She volunteered for extra projects, requested to tag along to meetings, and asked lots of questions. Surrounded by rocket scientist and engineers, Silvas had an epiphany.

“I realized that I could be an engineer,” she says. “I had always pictured engineers as people who spent the day solving complex math problems, but once I saw what they really did, I gained the confidence to pursue engineering.”

Silvas has earned straight As in her prerequisite courses and will begin her core engineering program at the University of Central Florida in early 2012.

” You are never too old to go back to school or create new pathways for yourself,” she says.

From 2009 to 2010, the number of Hispanic young adults enrolled in college grew by 24 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In addition, the number of Latinos who are pursuing a technical education has gone up, according to the White House report “Improving Education for the Latino Community.”

Still, many young Latinos like Silvas are finding that education doesn’t guarantee employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among Hispanics with some college or an associate’s degree in 2010 was 9.7 percent, compared to n 8.4 rate for all people with the same education.

Author of With the Race for 21st Century Jobs, New Jersey-based Rod Colon discusses career management strategies during his weekly radio call-in program, “Your Career is Calling,” on Rider University’s 107.7 FM. Colon says that while more Latinos are going to college, they still lack the guidance needed in planning for career success.

“Many of these students are first-generation college students whose parents may not have had access to education,” Colon says. “These parents may not have the networks to guide their children in making the connection between education and career.”

This was true for Edwin Ortega, who was the first in his family to attend a university. Ortega started college as an engineering major but switched to sociology and later anthropology.

During the last part of Ortega’s college career, his youngest brother was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Ortega kept in close communication with the nurses caring for his brother, and decided to pursue nursing school after graduating.

Although he had already taken several of the prerequisites needed for nursing school, he decided to retake several of the courses to make himself a stronger candidate. While working full-time at a company specializing in pharmacy services, Ortega took evening courses at a local college. He applied to several nursing schools before receiving an acceptance letter. Ortega quit his job in order to enroll in the one-year accelerated nursing program at Remington College in Lake Mary, Fla., and is living off more student loans in order to pursue a nursing career.

These days, Ortega wakes up at 5:45a.m., attends school from 9a.m. to 4:30p.m. and studies in the library after class until about 10:30p.m.. He attends clinicals at a local hospital on the weekends.

“You may have to make big sacrifices for what you want,” Ortega says. “I know that I’m working toward a better future for me and my family.”

Like Ortega, Robert Martinez didn’t have a lot of guidance about pursuing college. Growing up in East Los Angeles, Martinez dreamt of becoming a professional football player and was pushed through a mechanic training track in high school. But one of Martinez’ coached saw more in him. With the help of this coach, Martinez was accepted to Whittier College. After playing for two years for Whittier, Martinez was picked up by the San Francisco 49ers for their practice quad, spending one season with the NFL.

“In essence I had realized my goal, but I knew that a football career was short lived so I decided to change directions,” Martinez says. “I wanted to help people, children in particular.”

After earning a B.A. in psychology and an M.S. in counseling, Martinez began working as a counselor. When he faced a potential layoff due to budget cuts, Martinez decided to pursue a doctorate to expand his opportunities. In August 2011, Martinez moved across the country to enroll at North Carolina State University, and was hired to serve as assistant director for its TRIO program, which serves low-income, first-generation students.

“The current economy in challenging, but don’t get sucked into the doom and gloom. You have more control then you think,” Martinez says.

–Ashley Cisneros
Ashley Cisneros is a co-founder of Chatter Buzz Media, an Orlando Internet marketing firm that helps companies and organizations engage with their target markets through inbound marketing via the Internet. Chatter Buzz Media, which won the Social Madness competition for the Orlando small business market, is a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in website design, search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing and content creation. Prior to founding Chatter Buzz, Ashley worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, technical writer, marketing manager, public relations practitioner and freelance journalist. To see Ashley’s content writing, visit You can also reach Ashley on her Google profile.

About the Author:

Ashley Cisneros Mejia is a journalist, entrepreneur and marketer. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later as an editor at Florida Trend business magazine. Ashley has worked as a professional freelance writer since 2009, as a technical writer, marketing manager, and public relations practitioner. She also founded two digital marketing agencies in Orlando. Named one of Orlando’s 40 Under 40 and honored by the Women’s Executive Council of Orlando for achievements in media and communications, Ashley earned a B.S. in Journalism and an M.S. in Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida.

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