Text of Speech by Gil Cisneros at Opening of Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute

April 18, 2016

I would first like to thank President and Mrs. Knapp for sharing their home with us this afternoon. I would also like to thank all of you for taking time out of your busy days to be here for our celebration. 

I came to D.C. for the first time when I was 17 years old.  I was selected out of everyone in my high school to participate in what was a week-long program where we spent time on the Hill meeting with congressmen and ambassadors. We toured the FBI building and the Pentagon. This was an amazing trip for me. It was the first time I had ever left California, only the second time I had ever been on a plane. We actually stayed at Mount Vernon College, which is now the Mount Vernon Campus. I remember driving down 23rd Street and passing the George Washington University on our way to the Lincoln Memorial. 

That first trip to Washington was a life-changing event for me. It got me out of my comfort zone and opened a whole new world of possibilities for me—places to visit and see, things to do. Before this experience, I never really thought about college, let alone attending college on the East Coast. Everyone I had known who had gone to college, and it wasn’t very many people, had gone to a local, state school. This trip gave me confidence to start thinking outside of the box. Before my trip, I never would have imagined attending a private, selective university, and after my trip, I was even discouraged from doing so. 

Unfortunately, 25 years later, many kids are still not realizing the capacity of their full potential, and more times than not end up settling for something less. Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford University professor, did a study that found more than half of high achieving, low-income students attend a college or university that they are academically overqualified for. The term we use to describe this is undermatching.  Another study found that 44 percent of Latinos are more than likely to undermatch.   That is the highest percentage among any ethnic group. While you think they would breeze through school if they were overqualified, the exact opposite happens. A lot of them end up dropping out.

One reason for creating the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute was to give students an opportunity like I had when I was 17 years old. We want to take young Latino students out of their comfort zone, bring them to the nation’s capital and give them an experience they might not have even imagined, give them the experience of living on a college campus.

We will work with them on study skills, time management and teach them leadership skills but also the importance of being a leader. But the most important thing we want to do is encourage them to reach their full potential and attend a selective university that is befitting of their academic achievements and capabilities.  Then we are going to fly their parents out and explain the same thing to them.   

Why are selective universities so important? For one reason, the student is likely to receive more resources at a selective university…, higher earning potential, greater networking opportunities. But most importantly, the chances of the student graduating increase. 

When we started working on the institute, and we would tell people what we were doing, I would often get asked, “Why D.C.?”  My thought was always why would you have it anywhere but D.C. This is the nation’s capital. Decisions are made here on a daily basis that affect the world. The city is full of history, and there is a vast pool of individuals we can draw from to help us groom our young leaders.

We could have done this in an urban area with a large Hispanic population and served kids in that specific area, but that would have been like clipping the wings of a bird. We want to bring kids from around the country, let them interact with each other, learn about the various Latino communities and let them spread their wings and soar in an environment that is not only new but also exciting and has so much more to offer them than any other place. 

And the George Washington University is a great place to do that, as it is a top university that sits right in the heart of the nation’s capital. From here the students can have access to the entire city. But I also chose GW for selfish reasons. GW is my alma mater, and this place is very important to me. My four years here at GW helped make me the person that I am today. It will forever be a part of me and I a part of it. 

George Washington had a dream of a national university, and that is why this university bearing his name was created. And as the nation’s university, GW, I have always felt, needs to be more reflective of the country’s population. So while my ultimate goal is for students who complete the summer program to attend selective universities and colleges, my hope is that a lot of them will fall in love with GW like I did and want to come here. 

The Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute is not just about grooming high school students. The goal is to one day be a top research institute with a national reputation. We want to hold events that will bring scholars and other individuals from around the country to speak on topics that affect the Hispanic community. We will be a national think tank for the Hispanic community.

But most importantly, the institute will also have an active presence on campus for GW students. We will provide scholarships. Give students a safe place to come together not only to study but also to build friendships and work to become leaders of tomorrow. We will get them involved in campus life, which data shows also increases graduation rates. To put it simply, our institute will be a home away from home for these students, which is something I wish I had when I was here.

Thank you very much, and Raise High!