left to right: Chris Soto, Dr. Nunez, Julie Rodriguez, Edili Lopez, and Jonah Sanchez
Eastern presented Cesar Chavez Distinguished Service Awards to Eastern senior Jonah Sanchez, Edili Lopez, hall director at Constitution Hall and Chris Soto, founder of Higher Edge, on April 1 in the Student Center Theatre. An added treat this year was keynote speaker Julie Rodriguez, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
This is the 12th year of the awards program, which has recognized 36 individuals over its existence. The program was initially called the Latin American Distinguished Service Awards but was changed 1n 2013 to honor the late union organizer and humanitarian. Soto is a Coast Guard Academy graduate and has a master’s degree from Brown University. He is a member of the Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. Soto created Higher Edge, an organization in the New London area dedicated to helping first-generation students enroll and graduate from college. He urged the audience to join him in “paying it forward for the next generation.”
After receiving her master’s degree, Lopez spent time in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, working with Latino students to help them prepare for college. Now she helps guide freshmen in Eastern’s Constitution Hall and co-advises the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS). She said she was grateful for the opportunities she has been given at Eastern to help students succeed. “Let us create a better future for our future leaders.” Sanchez is a Business Administration major, and as president of OLAS, has organized a number of activities for OLAS members to work with local schoolchildren. He also is interning at United Technologies in Hartford, and will attend their Financial Leadership Program after graduation. Sanchez recalled the words of boxing legend Muhammad Ali: “I hated every day of training, but told myself to suffer now and live the rest of my life as a champion.”
Keynote Speaker Julie Rodriguez, center in purple, with members of Eastern’s OLAS (Organization of Latin American Students) student club.
Eastern President Elsa Nunez opened the ceremony with welcoming remarks, noting that the day before, President Barack Obama had declared March 31 as “Cesar Chavez Day.” While Chavez was not formally educated, Núñez said he surrounded himself with books and was a source of constant wisdom. She then read two of Chavez’s more famous quotations. Speaking of the purpose of higher education, Chavez said, “Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves—and be free.” Speaking to the need for students to give to their local communities, Chavez also said that “real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students. What better books can there be than the book of humanity?”
“Thank you for carrying the torch and legacy of my grandfather,” said keynote speaker Julie Rodriguez. She said her grandfather led by example, becoming a vegetarian, an advocate of non-violence and a practitioner of yoga to develop a meditative approach to life. Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers Union and spent his life advocating for the rights of farmworkers and people of color.
Rodriguez began working in the farm worker movement at age five, and today serves in the Obama administration as an advocate and organizer in the areas of health care, immigration reform, working families and education. “The United States is a work in progress,” she declared, “a destiny to be fulfilled. Each of us can contribute to a more just, fair and better society.”
Opening the event were Anamel DeLeon and Leopolda Navarro, who entertained the packed audience with two Latin American dances.