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Latino College Graduates: Don't Stop Now

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Throughout this month and last, thousands of Latino graduates across the country have been listening to a wide range of commencement addresses on how to achieve their career goals or make a difference in the world.

But while many graduates view the end of their studies as the formal transition point from one stage of life to another, the Latino community as a whole would be better served if, instead, graduation was looked upon as but one step along an individual's path of lifelong learning, professional development and achievement.

As president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, an educational and leadership development non-profit, I would like to offer my own words to our Latino graduates along those lines.

First and foremost are congratulations. The graduates of 2013 are part of a growing wave of positive role models in our community. Consider this:

· Between 2000-2011, among Latinos 16 to 24 years old, the high school dropout rate decreased from 28 percent to 14 percent;

· Last year, a record 69 percent of Latino high school graduates transitioned directly from high school to college - two points higher than the rate among their white counterparts; and,

· According to The Economist, Latino buying power has more than doubled in the last decade.

Despite making progress in closing the achievement gap that exists between the Latino community and the population as a whole, there is so much more we, and our recent graduates, can achieve if given a more holistic approach to post-graduate success.

Once Latinos graduate college, and for those who graduate high school and decide to enter the working world right away, the opportunities for advancement are lacking. Graduates may be a long way from the C-Suite, but they should know that even in 2013, only six of the Fortune 500 companies have Latino CEOs. This leadership gap exists in every sector -- public, private and non-profit -- and that's a problem.

The key strategy, then, for closing the leadership and professional achievement gap for Latinos is twofold. First, even after they leave their institutions of higher learning, Latinos should commit to "professional learning" opportunities. Second, we must have corporations join our efforts to increase the pipeline of Latino talent via internship and mentorship opportunities within their organizations.

Young Latinos will simply achieve more if given the guidance, support system, workplace skills and connections to guide them in the transition from school to work and throughout their careers. Connecting successful Latino leaders in one's chosen field and in his or her community is mutually beneficial to recent graduates and the prospective mentors and teachers. It demonstrates that there are serious young Latino professionals with the ambition to further their careers, and it endows recent graduates with strategies to succeed in the workplace.

At CHCI we have witnessed firsthand how education and leadership development programs are cultivating the nation's problem-solvers and narrowing the divide in areas such as law, health and STEM. Our integrated model of educational services and leadership development promotes college readiness, supports college attainment and provides direct access to the most powerful network of Latino leadership, helping ensure career success across various sectors.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed CHCI alumna Alejandra Ceja to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. An innovative new treatment program in San Antonio aimed at keeping drunk drivers off the road was recently created by alumna Judge Liza Rodriguez. And an alumnus and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee agricultural economics professor, Dr. Enrique Figueroa, received an award from the Green Bay Packers last year recognizing his local leadership and work in underdeveloped countries.

This success is not surprising as we recognize the talent and drive inherent in our community and culture. It is simply a matter of access to the right opportunities so that all Latinos can shine.

As the dramatic population growth of Latinos in the U.S. continues, education and training for Latino youth and young adults becomes more important than ever. We've learned at CHCI that the pipeline of Latino talent grows most effectively when the mentees become the mentors. Once they have established careers, graduates should do their part to help pull up Latino students at all levels.

As they mark a milestone on their paths to adulthood, Latino graduates should live and breathe our mantra of "Educate. Empower. Connect" and take advantage of resources and opportunities from college to post-graduate to professional life. If we are serious about lessening the disparities that plague our community, we must approach education not only as a means to an end, but as a powerful, life-altering force that continues throughout one's career.