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White Plains Students Take Ownership of Heritage

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Each year, Alberto Minotta's Spanish Latin Heritage 2 students at White Plains High School host a Latin-born "guest star" who has achieved success in the U.S.

While Minotta selects the "guest stars", of which there were three this year, he gives his students the task of organizing an academic symposium focusing on a theme relevant to their visitor's field of expertise.

Students assigned to a particular guest take on the visitor's last name. Daisy Contreras, 15, was the leader for Team Fernandez, which this past week hosted Dr. Harold Alberto Fernandez, a native of Colombia who became a cardiovascular surgeon in New York.

"The idea that this is ours, it starts with that name, and it culminates with the academic symposium," Minotta said.

Fernandez was 13 when his family immigrated to the United States

Last week, Team Quesada hosted Roberto Quesada, a Honduran author. Before that, Team Alvarado hosted Jose Alvarado, a former six-term Westchester County legislator for the 17th district.

Minotta created this annual series of academic symposiums in 2002 with Quesada, who has returned each of the last 10 years. For the first two years, Minotta researched his guest, arranged the event, brought food and introduced the speaker.

"The first academic symposium I developed myself," Minotta said. "Then I thought, 'my goodness, this is something that I find so worthwhile, how much more exciting and worthwhile would it be for my students if they do what I'm doing?'"

In 2004, Minotta began assigning his students to handle those various tasks in preparation for the speaker. While Contreras led Team Fernandez, her classmate Yohanny Polanco served as public relations director, and others held various positions.

"The 'stars' that I bring are all Latin American, native Latino, and it's done purposefully that way because I want to express to them the importance of maintaining and celebrating their cultural roots," Minotta said. "By bringing in these guest stars, it validates how many opportunities they have in the U.S. and in the New York region to use their bilingual and cultural ability in a very professional setting."

Contreras said she was inspired by Fernandez, who was 13 when he immigrated to the U.S. on a leaky boat. In five years he graduated from Memorial High School as the valedictorian, then went on to Princeton University, Minotta said. There, he confided in a professor that he used a fake green card and stolen Social Security number .

When word got to the dean, they noticed Fernandez's grades were in the top five of his freshman class, and found a way to keep him in school. Having revealed his secret, Fernandez went on to train at Harvard Medical School and New York University Medical Center. The 44-year-old now practices at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, N.Y.

"I thought it was interesting, his whole life experience," Contreras said. "It was very inspirational."

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