Thursday, April 5, 2018 - 2:15pm

Mercy students attended the Somos el Futuro Collegiate Summit in Albany on March 9, joining several hundred college students interested in learning about New York State’s political landscape, exploring potential career paths and amplifying their voices about important issues. Because many of the Mercy students attending the Collegiate Summit are veterans, they were particularly interested in discussing New York’s plans to better support veterans reintegrating into civilian life, though other issues  such as how legislation affects Hispanic-serving institutions, like Mercy  came up as well. The Collegiate Summit is a relatively new addition to the long-standing Somos Conference, which is organized by the New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

 

Attending the Somos Collegiate Summit gave special visibility to Mercy’s students and mission. Mercy was one of the first private colleges invited to attend the event once it opened up to schools beyond The City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) a few years ago and is still one of few private colleges represented. This honor is partly due to Mercy’s designation by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-serving institution with more than 30 percent of full-time Mercy undergraduates identifying as Hispanic.

 

Given the strong leadership from Bronx legislators in organizing and moderating the Somos Collegiate Summit, Mercy’s Chief Community Relations Officer Lenny Caro asserts that Mercy students on the Bronx Campus should feel especially proud. “This vibrates bigger than anything else for our students in the Bronx. They can say, ‘That’s us up there!’” Caro himself was recognized at the conference by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and New York State Assembly Member Marcos Crespo for his service on the Somos board.

 

At this year’s Somos Collegiate Summit, students heard from and spoke with a range of legislators and corporate leaders, including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York State Sen. Marisol Alcantara, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr., Google’s Head of Latino Community Engagement Laura Marquez, and several assembly members. Before and after the plenary sessions, students were also able to meet potential employers  such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the New York State Department of Public Service and the New York Power Authority  at a job fair.

 

In addition to answering questions from the audience, many speakers used their time on stage to encourage students to speak up and take action. Crespo, who represents Assembly District 85 in the Bronx, described the Collegiate Summit as the most important part of the Somos Conference. He sees the students in the room as the ones who will continue the legacy of the Hispanic elected officials who have worked for decades to give middle-class, working and poor people from all ethnic minorities a voice in state government. He made it clear, however, that anyone can be an agent of change, whether an elected official or not.

 

Gillibrand emphasized a similar message: “I often tell people that the only way anything ever changes is when regular people just like each of you stand up and demand it …. We are constantly being reminded of how much power young people have to effect change in our country …. Don’t stop demanding change.”

 

Mercy junior Raquel Williams-Castro took this cue and told Gillibrand about her transition back to civilian life in New York after retiring from the United States Army: “I felt like veterans were invisible. Especially after 9/11, I’m amazed that New York doesn’t recognize or do more for veterans. I asked Sen. Gillibrand about her plans to change that.” After giving a brief response on stage, the senator asked Williams-Castro to connect with an aide so they could continue the conversation, an offer that came as a welcome surprise to the Mercy student: “I am really still in shock. I've never spoken to a senator, let alone had an invitation from a senator.”

 

Indeed, Gillibrand’s reaction impressed the other Mercy students attending the Somos Collegiate Summit as well: “The senator was very interested in assisting [Raquel] personally. That direct attention, that made us raise our eyebrows,” explained Mercy student and United States Army veteran Hector Rivera. Now serving as a Veteran Admissions Recruiter for Mercy, Rivera explains that attending the Collegiate Summit gave him a greater awareness of the services available to Hispanic students. He was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that legislators and corporate leaders were “willing to listen to what students have to say in order to try to implement changes.” He notes that civilians  including legislators and professors  have much to learn about military personnel and veterans, including the challenges they face upon reintegrating into civilian life. But airtime at an event like this one and interest from a U.S. senator are certainly steps in the right direction.

 

In addition to empowering Mercy’s Hispanic students, the Somos Collegiate Summit is important at an institutional level, Mercy Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. José Herrera asserts. He sees the event as a chance to remind the assembly members who represent the Bronx and Manhattan about Mercy’s mission and the kinds of students Mercy serves. “It was important to show that there’s a Mercy presence at the conference,” he explains, “and that we stand side by side with our Hispanic students.”

 

From his perspective, it is important for Mercy students to participate in the Somos Collegiate Summit because they begin to understand “the political power that a Hispanic student has. Especially for first-generation students, it can be really difficult for them to rise above their everyday life and see the political landscape.”

 

Williams-Castro feels this political power as she prepares to meet with Gillibrand: “I feel like it’s the right time for me to say something. Now that I'm retired from the military, I have the ability to speak about what I want to speak about. I’m a social work major, and I’m all about social justice and change.” Her drive to take action must be exactly what the New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force hoped for when organizing the Somos Collegiate Summit  and is exactly what New York needs.