Middle School Students Focus on Mental Health, Financial Literacy, and College & Career Pathways in 8th Annual Statewide Leadership Summit

SALT LAKE CITY – Over 700 middle school and jr. high students of racially and ethnically diverse communities from across the state were encouraged to reflect on their future goals and discover tools that can build upon their strengths. 

The Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs recently hosted the 8th Annual Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit, an event that has been supported through Governor Gary R. Herbert’s college and career ready initiative, and continues through Governor Spencer J. Cox’s initiatives to empower Utah’s youth to lead under the spirit of #OneUtah. This year’s event focused on increasing opportunities for educational and career success amongst youth of diverse identities through the theme of “Your Power to Be”. Students engaged with diverse professionals and community leaders during this interactive Zoom conference by learning more about their life stories and the many pathways students can take to lead impactful lives. 

This year’s Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit highlighted state leaders, community partners, and emerging professionals making a difference across Utah. 

Among those speaking was Meligha Garfield, director of the Utah Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah, who marked the theme of the event, “Your Power to Be”, by encouraging students to dedicate themselves to what they find valuable and deeply meaningful based on their stories. 

“I want you to be passionate…not just be something,” Garfield said, while encouraging students to  embody values and desires to make communities thriving spaces. He later added, “When you all grow up, I want you to take risks, dream big, ask for help, do something valuable, and lastly protect your magic.”

Adam Conte, co-founder of The Arrows Journey, a multimedia organization that inspires Indigenous youth to tell their stories, prepared an empowering video that shared how his “Power to Be” is deeply connected to his love of filmmaking.

Students also learned about the foundations of mental health, college & career readiness, and financial literacy. Data surrounding these topics show that youth from underrepresented communities may experience certain disparities that create achievement gaps. Such statistics include: 

  • In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17 and 18 to 24 and Utah’s child and youth mental health needs were increasing even before the pandemic. (Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah’s Public Health Data Resource)
  • Enrollment, achievement, and educational attainment continue to differ by sex and race/ethnicity in both K-12 schools and higher education in Utah. (Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)
  • As of 2020, many racial & ethnic minority groups experienced median household incomes lower than the state median income. The Black and Native American populations were the furthest below the state median. (Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)

Michelle Latu, a financial broker who led out on the Financial Empowerment session, inspired students to envision themselves in wealth building spaces. Acknowledging that financial topics can be intimidating to youth, Michelle spoke to students from her personal experience in becoming financially empowered by breaking cycles of poverty in her own family, later on becoming one of the youngest brokers in her current company. Covering topics like investment, savings, and good and bad debt, she instilled in students the idea that “it doesn’t matter what background you come from, you can learn how to manage money”, urging youth “that they can start anywhere” in building small habits to be money smart. 

“I learned that no matter what culture you’re from, there will always be people supporting [you] every step you take. I also learned that metal health is very important.”

Student, Vista Heights Middle School

Attendees came away with a new understanding of their strengths as leaders, and a renewed confidence in their ability to invest in successful futures. 

The impact of this event was evident by the reaction from both students and educators. One student from West Jordan Middle School shared that they had started a small business,and weren’t sure how to manage money. They added, “having a speaker that showed us how to manage [our] money and use it wisely helped me a whole lot and now I feel more confident and have an idea of how my business is going to work now and in the future.” Another student from Vista Heights Middle School boldly stated, “I learned that no matter what culture you’re from, there will always be people supporting [you] every step you take. I also learned that metal health is very important.”

This positivity was echoed by an educator who shared that this event “opened a discussion for us about college opportunities, scholarships…the future. I think some of my students don’t think they have much of a future beyond the family cycle of living paycheck to paycheck for their whole life.”  

Further, one educator was surprised by how many of their students enjoyed the financial session. “I learned my students were like sponges, ready to learn from people who have paved the way with similar life stories.”

The Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit has established itself as a generational experience, with schools across Utah participating annually in youth advocacy and empowerment. Engaging middle school and jr. high students is important to the division as they are in a critical stage to be inspired to seek out thriving pathways to college, career, and community participation. 

“Your Power to Be” is a theme that will continue to guide the division to new heights in connecting students and educators to community resources and leaders to identify their leadership skills, create a statewide network of peers, and obtain the tools needed to make positive change happen in their communities.