EDINBURG Six rising seniors from The University of Texas-Pan American will be Harvard bound in June as the first students from the University to participate in the prestigious Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) Program at the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership (CPL) Center for Public Leadership (CPL) in Cambridge, Mass.

The program, which debuted in June 2010 with 28 students from other universities, is intended to prepare the next generation of leaders. Thanks to increased support, this year's cohort will expand by 40 percent to 40 students, all college juniors entering their senior year, from UTPA, University of Massachusetts-Boston, University of Houston, Texas A&M International University in Laredo, University of California-Merced, Miami Dade College, and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.

The students selected to participate are: Carla Valeria Caso, economics major from Mission; Robert K. Danso, pre-medical biology major from McAllen; Haydee Iris Villarreal, English major from McAllen; Erika Priscilla Gaytan, communication sciences and disorders major from Hidalgo; Jessica Lizette Pena, theater/dance major from Edinburg; and Maria Luisa Hernandez, a mechanical engineering major from Alamo. UTPA graduate student Tania Chavis, an MBA alumna who is pursuing a master's in communication, was also tapped to shadow Dario E Collado, the LLI's program manager, during the 2011 program.

A committee from the University's Division of Student Affairs headed by Dr. Magdalena Hinojosa, associate vice president and dean of admissions and enrollment services, reviewed the initial 37 applicants, who had to submit two essays, recommendation letters and meet the program's academic criteria, and selected 15 who were then interviewed by another committee composed of student affairs staff and faculty. Twelve applications were sent on to Harvard's LLI representatives, who also conducted interviews and selected the final six chosen to be part of the June 25-July 3 LLI cohort.

Collado said the selection process was difficult because of the quality of the applicants. Those chosen were quite varied in their ambitions and life goals, he said.

"What we are going to learn from the Valley students is their resiliency. We are going to learn that there are many students who have very fresh ideas who really want to ensure that their communities are served in the best possible way," Collado said.

The initiative, which is funded by private donations and sponsors, seeks to enhance the leadership capacity of students committed to serving the Latino community; establish a strong network of contacts and relationships among the students and the program's leaders; and inspire the participants' own views of their possibilities for leadership and professional achievement.

The week includes classroom sessions from Harvard and Georgetown faculty addressing important leadership skill sets such as negotiations, public speaking, emotional intelligence and critical thinking. Participants will also hear from and interact with nationally known guest speakers from nonprofit, business and government sectors on what it takes to be an effective leader.

Teleconferences hosted by CPL will enable LLI participants to continue their leadership development over the ensuing academic year. They are also required to create a team-based community service project that will be implemented in collaboration with faculty and/or administration from their home university.

Pena, who moved to the United States from Reynosa, Mexico as a high school junior, is a member of the UTPA Dance Ensemble as well as the Eternity Dance Company, a community-based dance troupe. She said programs like this often choose students studying business, science and more traditional areas, so as a theatre and dance student she was excited to be selected. Pena is looking forward to learning about the internship opportunities while there and chances to network with other students and people she will meet.

She said arts programs nationally are being threatened due to budget constraints and artists need to speak up.

"I'm going to take advantage of this program 100 percent, she said. "Without arts, there is no culture."

Hernandez, from Alamo, said she was deeply honored to be selected. A U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Turkey, the 26-year old is married and has a 3-year-old daughter. Hernandez, who from a young age wanted to be a mechanical engineer, said she gained a lot of leadership skills in the military but wants to learn more.

"I want to hear the stories from all these leaders - how did they do it so I can better advance myself and how can I apply that toward my community as well as my career," said Hernandez, who would like to pursue a community project addressing border violence, particularly toward women.

A group of local Rio Grande Valley business owners provided the funding to facilitate the partnership with Harvard's CPL and the opportunity for UTPA students to participate in the LLI's 2011 session.

Hinojosa said the University is not only appreciative of the new partnership with Harvard, which she said "wants to hear our students' voices," but also of the community's support for the program.

"This partnership will not just benefit them (students) but the Rio Grande Valley. The community is helping send these students, in turn, these students will return and help the community," she said.