Washington State University student Naliah Kent’s emotions are still riding high after more than 60 high school students visited the Pullman campus earlier this month to attend the annual VIBES conference.

“We had such an awesome time getting to know the students and showing them what it’s like to be a successful college student,” said Kent, a WSU senior majoring in human development. “It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.”

VIBES, an acronym for Visionaries Inspiring Black Empowered Students, is one of three conferences supported by the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU), all designed to encourage students from underrepresented populations to attend college. The others include the Children of Aztlan Sharing Higher Education (CASHE) and Shaping High School Asian Pacific Islanders for the Next Generation (SHAPING) Conferences. Not only are they unique for the populations they serve, they are planned and implemented primarily by WSU students.

Synergy on the westside

On Wednesday, March 11, ASWSU will host its 16th Annual Multicultural Fundraiser for the three conferences in the Courtyard by Marriott in Bellevue, Wash. The luncheon, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m., will take place on the same day as the CougsFirst! Show in Seattle, creating synergy and excitement among WSU alumni and friends on the west side of the state. Phyllis J. Campbell, a WSU graduate and chairwoman, Pacific Northwest for JP Morgan Chase, will give the keynote address.

Spearheading the multicultural fundraiser is Francisco Ochoa Limon, ASWSU director of Diversity, Inclusion and Veteran’s Affairs. He attended the CASHE Conference as a high school senior and remembers planning for college was a very stressful time for his family, who were unfamiliar with the admissions process and financing higher education.

CASHE walked him through every step, and by forging strong bonds with his team leaders and other attendees, he developed an instant support group. The unforgettable experience culminated during the closing banquet when he and others were surprised by being offered admission to WSU.

“I remember crying because it felt so amazing to be welcomed in such a way to the Cougar family,” he said. “I called my mom and told her everything was going to be better moving forward.”

Lighting a fire

The recruitment conferences offer high school students an opportunity to get a taste of higher education with individuals that share a similar culture and values, said Camille Naputo, co-chair of last fall’s SHAPING Conference.

Check out a video on the ASWSU multicultural conferences:

“During the three-days of the conference, an organic connection happens between the high schoolers and WSU students,” Naputo said. “They interact with conference volunteers, team leaders, and campus speakers that understand and acknowledge their culture. It tends to light a fire within them and there’s no telling where that will take them.”

Kent added, “We want students to feel welcomed and at home here while teaching them how to navigate a predominantly white campus.”

Edgardo Quiroz, a WSU senior from Tieton, Wash., vividly remembers attending CASHE as a high school student. Raised by a single mother who works in a fruit packing warehouse, college was nowhere on his radar. None of his friends talked about it, either.

Similar to many first-generation college students who have participated over the years, attending CASHE opened his eyes to a whole new world. The workshops exposed him to hundreds of possible careers and college majors, how to prepare for college, and finance it. He said it gave him a glimpse of what life can be like with a college education. Just as importantly, he met many others like him at WSU, who reached out to guide and support him.

“I left that conference so excited about going to college and now I knew what I had to do to get myself there,” he said.

Once enrolled at WSU, Quiroz became a leader on campus. He is serving as a student affairs ambassador and works as a facility manager at the Chinook Student Center. As busy as he gets, he has made it a priority to give back to CASHE, once serving as a team leader and two years as a communications director helping to promote the conference.

“We received phone calls from parents after last fall’s conference telling us we inspired their child so much that they changed their behavior at home,” Quiroz said. “It’s mind-blowing to think our conference did that.”

A clear evolution

Because the recruitment conferences are large, complex, and involve participants younger than 18, Brian Shuffield, director of WSU’s Student Involvement, said his team works closely with student organizers to help ensure their success.

The advisors help teach the students leadership skills, budgeting, how to handle logistics, and risk management. The co-chairs are usually the most experienced students who started as a volunteer their first year, moved up to be a team leader the next, and eventually a became director—a position that can oversee everything from the budget and programming, to transportation and housing.

“There is a clear evolution in their development as leaders and it is very rewarding to watch them grow over time,” Shuffield said. “We sometimes hear from them after they graduate that these experiences really benefit them in their careers.”

Shuffield said it takes $40,000 to $50,000 to run each conference. While the money comes from a variety of sources including student and activity fees, the Division of Student Affairs, and a $75 conference fee, the Annual ASWSU Multicultural Fundraising Luncheon remains a very important funding source. Student organizers say donors not only ensure the conferences remain viable every year, an increase in donations will allow more high school students to participate and enhance the overall experience of the attendees.

Seats for the luncheon can be purchased for $100 each. Half of each registration fee goes directly to supporting the conference.

WSU student organizers employ the personal touch from the get-go, often visiting high schools around the state to speak with students about the benefits of higher education and attending the conferences. Those that come forge strong bonds with WSU students, faculty and staff, who are eager to pass their knowledge, wisdom, and encouragement to the next generation of students.

“Thinking about the VIBES conference makes me so emotional because I care so much about this event,” Kent said. “It was great to see the conference come alive again and have new group of students experience it. We need to make sure future generations will have this same opportunity.”