NPPD summit encourages students to look beyond high school

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by jamesc  10/6/2017 8:46:48 AM --  NORFOLK, NE – Two boys, Ruben and David, grew up together in New Mexico. They were best friends from their first day of first grade and remained close until high school. They got into trouble and occasionally skipped classes. But the mischievousness changed one day in high school when Ruben realized that he wanted to pursue a different path in his life, while David had to become more motivated with family matters after he became a father at 15.

Ruben said they grew up in a working class, low income neighborhood and it was not uncommon for the police to raid a neighbor's house.

“That was normal. Our family did not have a lot of money, but my father always made sure we were always taken care of.”

Ruben said he became more focused on school work after an experience that changed his outlook when he began working with younger children. He became a peer educator in a program where he would help out monthly at an elementary school. Ruben was 15.

“I was scared at first and tried to put forth a front that I didn't care.”

He used to wear baggy clothes, but had to dress up for the peer program.

“When I started going to the elementary school and see kids and they were dressing and behaving like I used to…..that was an eye opener. I realized little kids, before they're were old enough to understand, were trying to relate to what they saw around them, (the world) I was part of. I couldn't be part of that and needed to be a different kind of role model.”

Ruben said he distanced himself from his friends during his sophomore year and they respected him for wanting to change things in his life. He earned decent grades during his junior and senior years and then the talk began about attending college.

However, many people told him there were too many barriers to attending college - finances, language, lack of motivation, grades, and lack of diversity, among others. But Ruben said he let none of that stop him as he and his sister were the first, and still are to this day, of his cousins on his mother’s side of the family to graduate from high school. He is the only one who has gone on to college.

Ruben applied for one scholarship in high school and learned that there are many scholarship opportunities. He said they are available, “if you just seek them out.”

While things were looking promising for Ruben, the same could not be said for his good friend. Ruben ran into David one day and learned he struggled in the years after he dropped out of high school and ended up taking his own life at age 20.

Ruben, who served as a pallbearer at David’s funeral, said they grew up in the same neighborhood and did many things together, “but there came a point where each of us decided to make a different decision. I decided I was not going to follow the same route as other people in my neighborhood.”

After seeing many people at the funeral “living in the past,” and who had not changed anything about their lives, Ruben decided at that moment that he was going to become a teacher.

After obtaining his degree from New Mexico State University, Ruben Cano spent a year teaching in Las Cruces, NM, and then, in 2004, he took a teaching position in the Omaha Public School System (OPS). Cano, who also earned a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has over a decade of experience in education, serving in several different capacities with OPS including teaching at South High for three years. He then moved into administration at Norris Middle School, Lewis and Clark Middle School, and is presently principal at Omaha South High School, which has an 80-percent Latino population.

“When you talk about barriers, whether it’s money, motivation, lack of diversity, even your perception as to whether or not you belong somewhere….none of those things are actual barriers. The only real barrier in your life is you! You’re the only one who can defeat you!”

Cano encountered that same attitude in some of his past students at South High.

“I tell students that what their parents do for a living, the part of town you grow up in or the color of your skin are not precursors as to what you are going to do with your life. These barriers are non-existent.”

Cano shared his story with Madison High School and Norfolk Senior High School students recently at Northeast Community College as part of a Latino Youth Summit, sponsored by the Nebraska Public Power District. The day was designed to bring students together to learn from Latino leaders, and for the students to think beyond high school and focus on how they can become successful leaders and professionals.

“If you looked at how and where I grew up and then look at my bio, they don't go together,” Cano said.  “My message to you is...growing up in that type of environment does not dictate who you are going to be. And it certainly doesn't determine who you are right now. You have to strive for something else in life. You have to work towards what it is you want out of life.”

Cano admitted to the students that when he was their age, he wasn’t planning to go to college.

“I’m not knocking getting your diploma, that’s huge. Graduating from high school is great. But don’t let that be your defining moment. Don’t let that be the last time you walk across a stage.”

Tim Arlt, general manager of retail at NPPD, told the students that regardless of their career path, it is important that education is part of the journey.

 “I will tell you that you can do it. There are so many people in your lives who want to help you, but you will have to talk with them. Tell them what your aspirations are. They will help you, I assure you, they will help. A little hard work and perseverance on your part and you can achieve anything you desire.”

“It’s about you trying to figure for yourself what you want to do with your life and that’s harder than it seems,” said Dr. Michael Chipps, president of Northeast. “This (day) gives you one opportunity of many to figure it out. There are many people in your lives who care about you and will be there to help you better determine your lives. Education beyond high school is so important in order to map out your life and make some good choices.”

The students also heard from a number of other speakers during the summit, including Juan Cangas, a motivational speaker and talent advisor with the Avenue Scholars Foundation, Alberto “Beto” Gonzalez, a gang intervention specialist with the Omaha Police Department, and Juan Sandoval, director of the Latino Business Center with the Center for Rural Affairs. The students also took part in a panel discussion with Karina Perez, executive director, and Raul Arcos, program and outreach manager, of Centro Hispano Comunitario de Nebraska.

This is the second year for NPPD’s Latino Youth Summit. It is the first year to be held at Northeast Community College.





Ruben Cano, principal at Omaha South High School, speaks during a Latino Youth Summit recently at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. The summit was sponsored by the Nebraska Public Power District.

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