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Sands Cares and NHI team up to make first year of Las Vegas Program impactful for students

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Posted: September 7, 2022 at 8:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Summer may be coming to a close, but it will be a memorable one for the high school students who participated in the National Hispanic Institute’s (NHI) transformative summer programs, which aim to help high-potential youth develop skills in communication, community advocacy and policy-making, as well as prepare them for success in higher education.

NHI welcomed 22 Las Vegas high school students for participation in its summer curriculum, made possible by funding from Sands Cares through a cumulative three-year $150,000 Sands Cares partnership to launch NHI’s program in Las Vegas. The funding enabled NHI to build a Las Vegas volunteer alliance to lead its leadership development curriculum and provided scholarships for selected Las Vegas students to participate in the program’s initial year.

The Las Vegas students who participated in the 2022 National Hispanic Institute programs were honored at an event on August 27 at the Veterans Memorial Leisure Center. The event featured the students as speakers as a way to showcase their learnings and skillsets from the NHI sessions and demonstrate the activities and work they completed.  NHI Executive Vice President Nicole Nieto, also spoke and presented each student with certificates of participation and invited them to attend 2023 programming. (See a full list of Las Vegas participants and award winners below.)

NHI’s curriculum includes a series of three immersive and progressive summer programs designed to equip youth with the skillsets and knowledge to successfully engage in community organizations and the legislative process. To prepare students for this challenge, NHI’s first goal is to inspire and train students to use asset-based thinking in community advocacy and organization, and to view themselves as capable assets that can effect change with their own resources and strengths. Students who participated in the summer program report its effectiveness in instilling this mindset.

“I would say that by going through the Great Debate, you definitely look toward the strengths of the community,” said Soren Smith, a student at Bishop Gorman High School who attended NHI’s Great Debate session focusing on communication skills as a tool for self-advancement. “Typically, you always think about how to improve the negative, whether in your community or the world. But by growing a family at the Great Debate, it really makes you look at the strengths of each other and build off of each other.”

Madison Messner, a student from West Career and Technical Academy who participated both in the Great Debate and the Lorenzo De Zavala Youth Legislative Session, NHI’s program focused on training students to manage organizations and systems and create policy and legislation, echoes Smith’s sentiment.

“One of my biggest takeaways from the NHI programs was the asset and deficit-based mindset,” she said. “It’s really prevalent throughout the entire program. In the end, it’s one of the biggest things I remember. Even now, it’s something that I use every day. The way I think is so changed.”

One of the keys to NHI’s successful curriculum is pairing a changed mindset with practical skill sets, particularly in the area of communications, and offering the opportunity to practice them in a supportive environment. According to participating students, this process starts right away. Mia Cruz, a student at Desert Pines High School noted, “Now, I definitely feel more confident speaking in front of other people. I think the way that NHI structured it helps you – you have to speak in front of people on the first day. Doing that over and over, it builds a habit, and I know how to project my voice and make eye contact.”

Bridgett Marquez, a student from Desert Pines High School agrees, “What I can take away from this program is my speech skills. The judges made comments about how I can improve myself by having better eye contact, voice projection and overall speech. We also learn to speak our thoughts and ideas about a topic they would give us. This gives a chance for a person’s voice to be heard.”

Across all curricula, the National Hispanic Institute’s essential goal is that students will apply what they’ve learned to advocate for themselves and their community and be prepared to tackle social challenges now and in the future. Natielle Martinez, a student at Bishop Gorman High School, confirms NHI has empowered her to be an advocate, “The biggest thing I took away from this program was definitely advocating for what I believe in. Before, I wouldn’t really speak up very much. And, I really liked debating at the program, and now I’m considering doing speech and debate at my school because I like it so much.”  

NHI representative Celeste Polanco says the changes from the program are lifelong.

“I went through the program more than 30 years ago, and to this day I still feel like it changed my life and perspective,” she noted.

“NHI opened my eyes to a broader world. I feel like it opened the world to me and made me feel like anything is possible. I felt like that then, and still feel like that today. I want our students to experience the same thing I experienced. I want them to understand there’s a whole world out there, and anything is possible. They can achieve anything they set their mind to.”

The Sands Cares partnership with the National Hispanic Institute’s Las Vegas program complements a broad spectrum of support for education, as part of Sands’ commitment to helping build the workforce of the future and removing barriers for underrepresented communities. Sands Cares educational initiatives span investments in scholarships, mentorship and youth development organizations, schools for underserved populations, higher education institutions, and educational nonprofit and advocacy organizations.

Youth interested in joining the National Hispanic Institute’s Las Vegas program can visit to learn more.

Great Debate Finalists and Awards

Sweet 12:
Cross Examination:

  • Amanda Jimenez and Anthony Leon
  • Amanda Roldan and Sophia Lopez
  • Mia Cruz and Sarahi Ramirez
  • Judith Garcia and Armando Flores
  • Mia Becerra and Mario Cassina
  • Vanessa Luna and Abisag Padilla
  • Noemy Mendoza and Caterina Alzati-Saldana

Extemporaneous Speaking:

  • Soren Smith


  • 2nd Place in Cross Examination:
    • Leader: Anthony Leon
    • Member: Amanda Jimenez

Championship Team:

  • Team RSS
    • Mia Becerra
    • Zaire Sanchez
    • Madi Messner 

Great Debate Participants

  • Jiovani Aguirre, Desert Pines High School
  • Julieta Arellano, Desert Pines High School
  • Mia Becerra, Desert Pines High School
  • Eduardo Calderon, Equipo Academy
  • Mia Cruz, Desert Pines High School
  • Judith Garcia, West Career and Technical Academy
  • Amanda Jimenez, Rancho High School
  • Angel Diaz, Equipo Academy
  • Lizeth Diaz, Equipo Academy
  • Chelsea Gamino Herrera, Rancho High School
  • Anthony Leon, Rancho High School
  • Vanessa Luna, Northwest Career and Technical Academy
  • Bridgett Marquez, Desert Pines High School
  • Natielle Martinez, Bishop Gorman High School
  • Noemy Mendoza, Equipo Academy
  • Amanda Roldan, Desert Pines High School
  • Zaire Sanchez, Advanced Technologies Academy
  • Soren Smith, Bishop Gorman High School

LDZ Participants

  • Sabdy Cordon, West Career and Technical Academy
  • Madison Messner, West Career and Technical Academy
  • Orethia Parks, Palo Verde High School
  • Jason Resendiz, Equipo Academy

Find more information about this impactful benefactor at Sands Cares.

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