La Verne, CA – April 28, 2012 – "Where you come from is not who you are or where you will end up," said Pasadena native, James Hutcheson, a senior student at the University of La Verne. James was talking to a group of young men who were attending the third annual Youth Leadership Conference.
He was one of six University of La Verne students who shared their personal stories with junior high and high school Inland Empire students.
Using the theme "I know I can," Brothers James Wilson and Tommy Randle, of the Inland Valley Uplift Foundation and the Eta Alpha Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc, opened its third Youth Leadership Conference for young students in the Inland Empire.
The youth heard several speakers who gave information about how education and their personal attitudes toward education had transformed their lives.
A highlight of the conference was the message given by former professional football player, Burnis Simon, who is Executive Director of the Hafif Foundation. Simon grew up in Leesville, LA. His mother had a 5th grade education; his dad only went to the 6th grade.
Simon talked about his humble beginnings, how his parents didn't have the money to buy him the latest fashions, or the high priced tennis shoes, most stylish jeans, or expensive jewelry and shirts. In elementary school, when students would laugh at him or bully him about his meager possessions, he sometimes felt the urge to defend his honor and his pride. And because he knew of no other way, he wanted to "lay hands on them," he said. But he soon grew out of that phase of his life; he survived.
Simon graduated from high school and was recruited to Texas A&M University where he played Division I football. He showed the youth two rings that he wore on his fingers; on his right hand was a ring that he received playing in a college bowl game; on his left finger he wore his college graduation ring – about which he said, "I am most proud."
Something he said must have sparked the interest of the youth because they had many questions for Burnis Simon; they were attentive; he was their hero.
Students also heard Larry Walls, an attorney, who warned that not continuing or taking serious their education could be disastrous for them. "It will be a big mistake," he said, "not to go to school. The biggest growth industry in California is the prison industry."
Walls told students how his ability to play high school football enabled him to go to college at San Jose State University and eventually to Law school at the University of California, Berkeley. Walls' point was reinforced and emphasized in a video shown to the students.
The documentary, "Bring Your 'A' Game" narrated by Mario Van Peebles, was filled with cameo appearances by rap artists, educators, athletes, and entertainers including Chris Rock, Spike Lee, Dr. Cornel West, Ice Cube, Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Russell Simmons, Lou Gossett Jr., Lupe Fiasco, Hill Harper, Damon Dash, Kevin Powell, Geoffrey Canada, Bruce Gordon and former NBA star Alan Houston, among others, all telling variations of the same theme – "stay in school – continue your education, think bigger than your present circumstance!"
Michael "Fritz" Haynes, Air Quality Inspector, III, of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, presented information that emphasized Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). He told about his chemistry background and the type of work that he does today.
Haynes gave the students a preview of what their freshman year in college might be like. "Before you enter college, please know what you are majoring in," he said. "Talk to someone in your community, someone at your school about college life and about lob opportunities."
There is much research to suggest that students who declare a major early in their college life or before they enter college tend to graduate on time, usually in four or five years.
One of the handouts given to students included recent salary information for STEM majors. For example, salaries for the college graduating class of 2011 were up by almost 6 percent or $50,462 as compared to $47,673 over the previous year. But the overall salary range for STEM graduates was from a high of $66,886 for Chemical Engineers to a low of $56,808 for Business Systems and Communications majors.
The content offered at this year's conference was filled with weighty advice for students about dealing with life's challenges.
Following lunch, the youth heard from Retired U.S. Marine Corp Lt. Col. Eddie Bickham who talked about job opportunities in the Navy and Marines. He told the students that they could learn a job relevant skill, earn a great salary with lucrative benefits, serve their country, and travel the world. "Because of my military service, I have traveled on six of the seven continents," he said. He spent 24 years in the service and shared with the youth that his grandmother was his greatest influence.
The students had the opportunity to hear from another hero, Jerry Hodges, a Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen (DOTA), who joined the military on June 12, 1944, at Camp Lewis, Virginia. From there he transferred to Keesler Field, MS for basic training and then to Tuskegee Institute for preflight and primary training where he was taught to fly the PT-17 and PT-13.
After that initial training, Mr. Hodges was transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Base and taught to fly the B-25; then to Lockbourne Air Base July 5, 1946 and assigned to the 617th Bomber Squadron, 477th Bomber Group. At Lockbourne, he was Assistant Base Statistical Control Officer.
Mr. Hodges also encouraged the students to consider the military as an option for service to country as well as a means of paying for their college education. He left the service in December 1946 and entered the University of Southern California (USC) in September 1947 and graduated February 1950 in Accounting and Finance, "and my education was paid for by the GI Bill," he said. "Now is the time to focus," he told the youth. "Work on your scholarship." He said when he was growing up he rode the school bus 20 miles each day to get to school. Mr Hodges has to be close to 90 years old; he is active and still drives his car where ever he wants to go. What manner of man!
At the end of the conference, the youth heard from six students of University of La Verne (2 were graduate students and 4 undergraduates). Each had their own story: some were first generation American citizens, Latina and African American, mostly from single family homes, but highly motivated to attend college. One of the students has been accepted and will be attending graduate school in the fall at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the end of the conference, James Wilson, President of the Inland Valley Uplift Foundation, asked all of the members of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., to come to the front of the room and introduce themselves to the youth. Hearing the variety of degrees and professions represented by these men, one of the youth said to Mr. Wilson this experience was life changing for him. He said that he was a father himself and after this experience, he has to think about life in a different way.
Wilson said that that the Inland Valley Uplift Foundation and the Etta Alpha Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc, has already begun planning the forth Youth Leadership Conference for next year. Their plan is to explore the possibility of linking this Inland Empire spring conference to the fall Youth Leadership Conference in Los Angeles hosted by the Omega Educational Foundation and Tau Tau Chapter, held at the University of Southern California in October.