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Native Youth Inspired to ‘Dream the Impossible’

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There are no limits to what you can achieve—this was the key message delivered to middle and high school Native youth and their families during a recent full-day conference held at UC San Diego. Called the Dream the Impossible Native Youth Conference, the event was designed to inspire future college students to picture themselves at a university as well as reconnect them with their culture through traditional teachings, language, games and more.

More than 100 attendees from tribes across San Diego, Inland Empire and Riverside counties gathered for a keynote talk by global private chef Pyet DeSpain (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Tribe), who rose to prominence after starting to infuse her cuisine with the foods that represent her Native American and Mexican cultures. 

Throughout the day, students had the chance to choose from a series of 10 workshops that ranged from a hands-on lesson in how the body breaks down food by UC San Diego’s Program in Medical Education for the Health Equity (PRIME-HEq) to an introduction to how artificial intelligence can be used to tell immersive stories about Native culture through OurWorlds

The conference was started in 2007 by several Southern California Tribes in partnership with organizations such as the California Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program and is held at a different university each year. UC San Diego’s Intertribal Resource Center played a key role in making this year’s event happen. “The conference is designed to have a cultural emphasis and centers Native voices and experiences,” shared Intertribal Resource Center Director Elena Hood. “It’s important our tribal communities know there are individuals on campus who support their students, families and communities both before they apply and when they get here.” 

Following are snapshots from the conference captured by UC San Diego photographer Erik Jepsen.

A group of young students poses in front of the Triton statue
The Dream the Impossible Native Youth Conference aims to inspire Native American youth to believe that they can achieve anything they want, introduces them to Native professionals in different fields, and helps them understand how higher education can transform their lives. Typically held on a different university campus each year, UC San Diego served as host for the 2023 event.
An image of the keynote speaker collaged with a wide angle shot of the amphitheater
The conference included a keynote talk by Chef Pyet DeSpain, who has gained recognition for her Indigenous Fusion Cuisine and was named seventh best private chef in Los Angeles by Entrepreneur Magazine. DeSpain urged the young students to listen to their intuition and live their life with purpose. When reflecting on key lessons she has learned thus far, DeSpain had three to share: (1) You are going to be tested the most when it’s time for you to elevate; (2) Your intuition is spirit guiding you in the right direction, trust those feelings; and (3) Gratitude means everything; celebrate the small things and that energy will attract more good in your life.
Three images that show students trying traditional Native American games
Students had the chance to take part in a series of 10 workshops, including this fun series of competitions held on the rooftop of Price Center Forum. Students had a variety of traditional Native American games to try—Shahook, P’shook, Shahook Mai Sarrap. UC San Diego alumnus Stan Rodriguez and Priscilla Ortiz, both members of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, led the workshop that was designed to promote cultural understanding through traditional Native American games that have a tie to creation stories. 
Three young students stand with arms up about to punch, learning kickboxing
Another session was led by Break Cycle Warriors, a program created to provide tools and outlets to break the cycle of poor physical and mental health and drug and alcohol addiction. In the center of the ballroom, students watched a demonstration of muay thai kickboxing, then learned a basic combination of jab-cross-hook themselves. In another corner of the room a conversation circle was formed that was intended to open discussion about difficult topics.
Two students learn to weave a reed basket
During lunchtime, students explored resources from a variety of community organizations, colleges and trade schools as well as visited activity areas with opportunities to make a necklace, grind grains into a homemade granola bar and weave a round reed basket (pictured).
A group of students smile as they look at marine specimens on a table
An important goal of the conference was to introduce students to how higher education can change their future and spark passions they never knew existed. Meeting current students, staff and faculty provided a way to gain new perspectives, along with interactive opportunities to get up close to specimens originating from our own coastline like the spiny lobster and basket star, presented by the team at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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