Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute inspires FIU, high school students

For FIU senior Gabriel Vergara, getting to participate in the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute’s (CHLI) Future Leaders Conference was a stroke of luck.

“I didn’t know anything about it until my professor shared it with me yesterday, and I am so glad I am here,” said Vergara, who is a public administration major. He hopes to one day work for a federal agency which specializes in health or education. He said having a front row seat to hear from the likes of former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave him a “perspective from those who are living out a leadership calling in the real world.”


Former congressman Mario Diaz-Balart addresses students. Photo by Ben Badger.

Founded by members of Congress in 2003, CHLI strives to advance the Hispanic community’s economic progress with a focus on social responsibility and global competitiveness. It is dedicated to fostering a broad awareness of the diversity of thought, heritage, interests and views of Americans of Hispanic and Portuguese descent. Leo Velasquez, coordinator of CHLI, “hopes that attendees are inspired to seek careers in their fields of interest, but to take the leadership lessons learned today and pay it forward.”

The bond between FIU and CHLI was inevitable. A number of members of the Congressional Board of Directors, Corporate Board of Directors and Corporate Advisory Council are FIU alumni who share the same vision of engaging local and global communities.

In 2013, CHLI and FIU Law partnered together to create a First Generation Dean’s Scholar award, which includes a $7,500 scholarship from CHLI and a matching $7,500 donation from FIU College of Law for three years. The recipient is paired with a mentor from CHLI or the legal community, and has the opportunity to benefit from an academic support network designed to promote retention, success and future employment. The first to receive this scholarship was Barbara Hernandez, a second-year law student. She is the first member of her family to obtain a college degree and the first to attend professional school.

The conference’s theme this year was “Explore your world. Discover your future!” It brought together students and young professionals of diverse backgrounds to learn more about leadership, political involvement, innovation and diversity and gave today’s leaders a chance to give back. Panelist Idalberto de Armas, senior vice president at Sabadell United Bank, was excited to impart some of his wisdom to the students while forging a connection with them.

“I can relate to these kids. I was the first one in my family to attend college, and I know that the majority of these students will be the first, too,” said de Armas “I hope that things I share with them – doing the things you like with people you like, encouraging them to connect with their professors and believing in themselves – will resonate with them.”

Following remarks from President Mark B. Rosenberg, Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen and a video message from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the students split up and moved on to concurrent panels that offered them a chance to discuss issues relevant to where they are in life. For Vergara, hearing both private and public sector leaders share their sage advice gave him important insight.

“Even though they have vast experiences in different industries, the messages were the same: Do not compromise the ‘non-negotiable’ values that a leader should possess, such as honesty, integrity, sincerity, transparency, trustworthiness and genuineness,” said Vergara. “As a member and secretary of the National Pi Alpha and Alpha Honor Society for Public Administration and Affairs and a volunteer at the Center for Leadership and Service at Florida International University, I will strive to apply those characteristics today and in whatever future role I will hold.”

The future leaders conference is an annual event, which takes place throughout the country. Students interested in getting involved with CHLI or learning about internship programs may visit