NHI honors 2017 class of alumni and educators at Celebración
Celebración 2017—the first-ever homecoming edition of the annual NHI gathering, bringing students and alumni to NHI headquarters in Maxwell, Texas—also brought together alumni and educators for the NHI Alumni Awards at the City of San Marcos Conference Center on Saturday, November 18. NHI staff and board members presented awards to the following honorees:
University of San Diego
College of the Year
Since 2014, the University of San Diego has hosted the California LDZ, one of NHI’s fastest growing programs, primarily serving students from the Western United States, but also drawing a significant Texas contingent.
The Catholic university, founded in 1949, states in its mission that it is “committed to advancing academic excellence, expanding liberal and professional knowledge, creating a diverse and inclusive community and preparing leaders who are dedicated to ethical conduct and compassionate service.”
“As we learned more about NHI and what they stood for, we knew it was a great fit for USD and our mission and values,” said Stephen Pultz, the University’s Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management. “It’s great to be able to support organizations that are like-minded, around this idea of developing community leaders, of bringing talented high school students committed to community social entrepreneurship.”
Rancho High School, Las Vegas, Nevada
High School of the Year
Rancho High School, located in Las Vegas, Nevada, has built a relationship with NHI dating back to 2014. Rancho students and alumni have graduated to Assistant Secretary of State and Secretary of State positions with NHI programs, and this past summer, the school sent five students to the California LDZ program to continue the relationship.
“This award represents a vote of confidence for the work we have just begun in our partnership with the National Hispanic Institute,” said Rancho High School Assistant Principal Jose Loya. “We have, in a sense, planted a seed in the Las Vegas community to develop the leaders in our valley, so that they may go out into their local, state, and world communities to promote positive change. As special as this is for Rancho, we do not want to be the only school in Nevada to take advantage of the learning opportunities offered by NHI. May we serve as the first, but not the last school from the Silver State to nurture nuestros lideres del futuro.”
An article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal article on Rancho’s award noted that nearly 75 percent of the school’s 3,235-strong student body is Latino.
School District of the Year
The Houston Independent School District, which sent 84 students to NHI programs this past year, has a long tradition of supporting NHI’s mission. In January 2016, the school district pledged $100,000 to fund scholarships for its students to attend NHI programs, $50,000 each for 2016 and 2017, which is the largest commitment of its kind to date.
“It’s a real validation of this partnership that has grown and strengthened over a decade,” said David Johnston, the district’s Director for College Readiness. “We have been working together, recruiting kids and funding kids and seeing the results of that hard work. To have that be acknowledged is a tremendous honor for us, especially since NHI works with so many outstanding districts.”
It’s also fitting that HISD is honored this year—Manuel Rodriguez, Jr., an NHI Hall of Fame honoree in 2013 and a longtime supporter of NHI’s work, passed away this July after 14 years as an HISD board member and a life of tireless public service.
Female College Student of the Year
Currently a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Mathematics with an Actuarial Science concentration, Pojman participated in the 2013 Texas Ambassador Great Debate, reaching the Final Four in Mock Trial, and the 2014 Texas LDZ, where she served as Senator Majority Whip. She’s been active in staffing programs and coaching students since then, including ongoing work with Austin students participating in the Texas Great Debate.
“I have poured countless hours into this organization over the past few years,” Pojman said. “Through every experience, every misstep, every success, and every friend made, I have grown as an individual and have been able to work with a diverse cast of characters. I am extremely honored to be named Female College Student of the Year as it honors not only the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve shed; it pays homage to the wonderful people who have allowed me to carve out my space in the world.”
Male College Student of the Year
Efrain Cordova, a senior at Swarthmore College majoring in Economics with an emphasis on Behavioral Economics and Finance, has been involved with NHI for the past six years—and is planning further engagement with the organization he regards as “home.”
Cordova first engaged with NHI as a member of the RGV team at the 2011 Texas Great Debate, then as Speaker of the House in the 2012 Colorado LDZ, and then a standout participant at the 2013 Texas CWS. He has most recently served as a John F. Lopez intern for two consecutive summers.
“For the past six years, my work with the National Hispanic Institute has proven to be the most rewarding and meaningful set of experiences I could have ever hoped for,” Cordova said. “The opportunity to engage with such a brilliant group of individuals reaffirms my belief that change is possible in this world if we are willing to work for it.”
Marlene Maldonado, Cotulla High School
Counselor of the Year
Marlene Maldonado has been a Cotulla ISD employee since 1999 and a counselor at Cotulla High School since 2003. She was also instrumental in launching a scholarship program for the district, starting in 2012, to help Cotulla students attend NHI programs.
This past summer, Cotulla High School had 23 students participate in NHI programs. In the school’s graduating Class of 2018, eight NHI alumni—including three who trekked to the 2017 International Collegiate World Series program—are all pursuing higher education, which Maldonado attributes to NHI’s influence.
“I’m invested in NHI and what it does for our kids,” she said. “It gives them social exposure, and gives them what they need for the future, teaching them about college, about what the future’s going to be like for them, things that they don’t get in high school. It makes such a difference for them.”
Distinguished Alumni in Public Policy
Gonzalez is a Texas State Representative from the 75th District (in El Paso County). She was first elected in 2012 and was named “Freshman of the Year” by the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. She has been involved with NHI since 1999, when she was part of the California LDZ, and 2000, when she participated in the California CWS. She also worked with NHI in the John F. Lopez Summer Internship program for three years, involved with the CWS program and with the Collaborative Research Center’s efforts.
As a state representative, she has shown a commitment to her constituents, the statewide Latino community, and NHI principles of community social entrepreneurship, championing causes like special education funding, public school finance, and rural development and infrastructure.
She has been recognized by a number of media outlets, including Latino Leaders for her leadership in education, as one of ten “Next Generation Latinas” by Latina, and as one of the 10 newly-elected politicians to watch in the nation by NBC Latino.
“NHI created the foundation for all the work that I do to promote social justice and equity,” she said. “NHI taught me more than skills; it provided the opportunity for character, value and leadership development.”
Distinguished Alumni for Community Leadership
Tijerina is a commercial real estate broker with CBRE in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, specializing in connecting Latino businesspeople and entrepreneurs with retail and office space. He has a long history of involvement with NHI, dating back to representing the Tip of Texas at the 2005 Texas Great Debate, participating in the 2006 National LDZ and 2007 New York CWS, and then staffing a number of program from 2007 on.
He is the former director of admissions for NHI, working at the organization’s headquarters from 2011 to 2014, and currently serves as project administrator for the NHI – Fort Worth region (serving Fort Worth, Arlington, and the rest of Tarrant County). He also serves as an education director for NHI programs, including the three most recent editions of the Texas Star Great Debate.
“Being a part of the NHI community has molded me into the person I am today,” Tijerina said, adding, “Being named a distinguished alum is a great honor, but I see it as more of a responsibility. As we move into a new era within the organization, it is the responsibility of the alums to ensure its growth and future. Leadership doesn’t have an age requirement, it has a will requirement. It is our job to work together as an NHI community to grow the organization, and I am committed to this lifetime endeavor.”
Celebracion 2017 was sponsored in part by State Farm, DishLATINO, Union Pacific, Winston & Strawn LLP, and the Roy G. Kerr Foundation.