As a high school student, Juan Carlos Guzman used to fight racism with his fists.
On Oct. 21 the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island presented Guzman with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his work since taking on a new approach.
After graduating from Grand Island High School, Guzman continued to advocate for the rights of his community. He was among three finalists considered as an aid to Congressman Tom Osborne, met with a variety of political leaders and earned his master’s degree in counseling and school psychology at UNK. Now, he works as the director of multicultural affairs at UNK and continues to advocate for Latino and Hispanic rights and the opportunity for students to pursue higher education regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
Born in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, Guzman had trouble ignoring derogatory comments at Grand Island High School when he moved to Grand Island in 1992.
“Back then in high school, the first thing we used to do when we heard racism or discrimination was just to get into a fight. But that would get me in trouble with school or the law,” he said.
His approach changed thanks to his high school teacher Sherry Nott.
“One of my teachers told me, ‘You’re a good leader, but you’re not doing it right. You need to talk to people and get them organized,’” Guzman said.
He decided to start a multicultural club, which proved to be a catalyst for his later work.
“That was the beginning of so many things I did back then in the community, but it also allowed me to become a leader and discover myself in so many ways,” he said.
Nearly two decades later, Guzman has engaged a number of political figures in conversation including former President Bill Clinton, Republican Adrian Smith and Gov. Dave Heineman. He has spoken at Grand Island’s marches for immigration reform, worked on several committees that represent Hispanics and Latinos, and traveled around Nebraska to encourage young people to pursue higher education.
“Through his influence in schools and the community, students have made better choices and pursued higher education. Hispanic families are now better informed on how they can help their children further their education for a better tomorrow,” said senior industrial distribution major Jose Perea.
Perea nominated Guzman for Multicultural Person of the Year, but the coalition thought his work warranted a different award. Guzman was surprised when he received the news.
“It didn’t click in my head, because I’m only 35 years old,” he said.
Guzman questioned the name of the award, but the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island convinced him to accept it. He said it will encourage him in the future.
“It’s a motivation for me to continue and to do more,” he said.