Archive for the ‘Education’ Category
“Who are you?” “California’s future leaders!”
In the first half of high school I moved without purpose. The only goal I had in mind was college but no real plan on how to get to college. I knew the college application process from my older brother and the UCLA Early Academic Outreach Program counselors at South Gate High School but I lacked the motivation and drive to do more than just my classes to prepare for college. I was involved with an environmental justice group in Southeast Los Angeles and two mariachis (South Gate High School’s and our own group) and spent the rest of my time in school, reading, playing video games, or (in the second half of my sophomore year), with my then girlfriend.
The summer of 2005 was a strange time for South Gate: for the first time in over two decades, all of its high school students had a summer vacation. South Gate High School’s position as the only high school in South Gate for over 70 years was about to end. South East High School was set to open in September 2005, taking with it about a third of South Gate High School’s students, along with South Gaters attending Jordan High School in Watts and those bussed out of South Gate due to overcrowding. The days of summertime school for two-thirds of South Gate high school students were over. For the first time in my life, I had a summer vacation.
I think it was for that reason that my older brother pushed me to apply to the 2005 Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project (CLYLP) in Sacramento. He knew that I needed motivation I was not going to find by checking out books from the library or staying around South Gate. All I had lined up that summer were two summer school classes to fulfill graduation requirements and a free August.
The CLYLP promised me a week away from home with other students from California, most of us Latino, and learn about college and expose us to Chicano/Latino professionals. My first summer camp.
What I got was so much more. Read the rest of this entry »
Amid cheers of “¡Sí se puede!” and “¡Viva Sal Castro!”, family, friends, former students, contemporaries and numerous admirers gathered this morning at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for Sal Castro’s funeral mass.
You can read my remembrance of Sal Castro here.
I wrote a piece on Sal Castro’s death for LAist. Here’s a snippet:
Castro’s message was easily distilled into the message on the podium in the photo above: “No sean mensos (Don’t be idiots). Go to college and graduate!” I still have his business card from when I attended the CYLC eight years ago. On the back is the stronger version of his message: “No sean pendejos (Don’t be dumbasses). Go to college and graduate!”
Read the whole piece over at LAist.
I should have graduated from college last month.
That’s the feeling I faced often during the past year at college. You should be graduating in May. Instead, I was finishing up the first half of my junior year, dealing with assignment and summer job application deadlines while trying to have some sort of balanced life. It was strange to see the members of my freshmen class attend seniors-only events while I languished. It reminded me too much of my freshmen year, when I would eat at the freshmen dining hall and see groups of friends and ask myself, “Why don’t I know many of them?” As I walked through Harvard Yard and saw my freshmen class in graduation garb with their families, I asked myself, “Why didn’t I do more to get to know them?”
* * *
I ate alone most of my freshmen year, always self-conscious of how much I believed I stood out against the rest of the freshmen class. It was pretty clear that I didn’t come from money; I owned only one cheap black polyester suit, didn’t know how to deal with silverware or how to carry myself in formal occasions, had no idea how to operate in a college classroom or how to fit in to the mainstream. It was the first time in my life I felt I had to deal with mainstream America. Before college, I had spent my whole life in the cocoon of being part of a very visible Other. I was just another Mexican, born to immigrant parents, who lived in a working-class neighborhood and went to below-average public schools in cities where no one is supposed to succeed in the terms of the mainstream culture.
I thought all that was scrawled on my clothing. I thought it was evident in my accent when I spoke. I thought it was clear when others spoke of books or television shows or movies or museums I had never heard of or had only read about in books or encyclopedias. I thought the nopal on my forehead was so big I’d have to walk with my head in my hands everywhere.
My life was upended when I received those fat packets in April 2007, inviting me to attend esteemed institutions of higher learning in the United States. I knew I would be part of a handful of students like me. I knew that I would be one of the standard-bearers or defenders of where I came from: “No, we’re not all ‘illegals.’ Speaking Spanish doesn’t mean I’m not assimilated or don’t want to assimilate. Yeah, we somehow make do with annual wages that equal the yearly cost of attending Harvard.” I never felt as if I had more to contribute to the discussion. When someone needed the “ethnic” perspective, there I was, ready to pipe up. I knew that my role has always of being the poor ethnic and that if I were ever to offer any more I would be punished, summarily!
And I relished it. I relished it because I began to believe that that was all there was to me, that’s all I could contribute. Without that, I had no other thing to talk about. How could I talk about traveling in Europe or my favorite restaurants in Manhattan or the connections with other students when my family has only been in this country for twenty-five years and all those other names are only dreams? The only perspective I felt I could contribute was that of the “ethnic.”
But I also hated it. I sought to be more than that, I wanted to be mainstream. I wanted to like the popular music of the day, see the same movies, share interests and have someone with whom I can talk about them. It’s probably because of that that I watch movies often (fortnightly, which is a big difference from that period of time when I didn’t watch films at all), because that’s the easiest thing to do. Movies can be easily forgotten, whereas it takes more effort to form opinions about music. When faced the mainstream and not having an alternative, I sought to be part of it, to be accepted by some part of it.
* * *
The desire to fit in to the mainstream was the overarching sentiment of the past year at Harvard. If I could at least make some friends, create some disparate assembly of persons or be accepted into an already-existing group of friends, I’d be part of the mainstream in some sense. If I could form those friendships, it must be because I have something to contribute, right? Why else would I be part of a group? Alas, that feeling of belonging never came around. There were never invitations to hang out, to go watch a movie, to go window shopping or walk along the Charles River never materialized. The dinner or drinks invitations were few and far between, most of them coming from the same two people. Another year where I spent most weekend nights in my room, secretly hoping for my cell phone to light up with a phone call, a text message, SOMETHING that would lead me to leave my enclosure. But it never happened. I always wondered who I could contact about hanging out, but most people who came to mind where people who I knew were working or sleeping at the time or with their significant others. I was at a loss as to what to do. Those nights were often filled with reading, problem sets, laundry, or YouTube sprees.
Back in high school, I knew that my restlessness or loneliness was really bad when I got the urge to visit a bookstore. To this day, that strong desire to visit a bookstore returns when I’m feeling restless. This past academic year, I knew my restlessness got really bad when I would leave my room in a huff on weekend nights with a desire to walk around Harvard Square. I would walk to the Square, then walk around the different storefronts, through Harvard Yard and surrounding college buildings, and down to the Houses by the Charles River. I don’t know what I sought; maybe to run into someone and exchange a few words or to have someone ask how I was. Maybe I walked around in the hopes of running into someone I barely knew who I would invite me somewhere and I’d have the time of my life. Or maybe I walked around in the hope of finding someone as forlorn as I was and we’d talk it over, reveling in our hope for better times.
The situation in the House was the same. I was invited to a number of House events and made sure to attend as many as I could, always in the hope of meeting new people and leading to an interest in each other. Instead, I once again was the quiet stranger, sulking away in the back because I didn’t know anyone. I envied everyone: How do they know each other? And so well? What’s their secret? Is there some sort of secret to platonic or romantic attraction that I don’t know of or possess? That devolved into: What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I talk to them? Why don’t I just go up and introduce myself?
I spoke about this with one of the administrators and she confided in me that she’s heard my name bounced around by other students. Instead of feeling happy that there people who know my name, I was disgusted because I was confronted with the fact that strangers know who I am, yet I don’t know who they are. How did this arise? I’ve wanted to meet you all, at the very least have someone to whom I can say good morning or sit together for lunch or dinner. Instead, I’m in the corner of a table, eating alone and carrying a disposition that I know tells others that I don’t want to be bothered.
Understand that I was raised not to care! To care for something meant that I would eventually be betrayed by that same thing, was the message I received as a child. I processed and internalized it, applying to everything. The goal was to be aloof from everything, good or bad, and to present myself as aloof. I’m the opposite of aloof: I’m aware of how I act and how others perceive me but do nothing to change it because I’m still motivated by the desire to be aloof!
There is a group of students of the same year that I feel are talking about me when I pass them. The stares I feel I get from them, the looks, the hushed voices, the sneers terrify me. I don’t know them, yet I feel they’re making fun of me. Do I think myself important enough that complete strangers make fun of me? And then I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all in my head. If only I would meet them at some event and we’d talk and finally meet. Maybe then I’d shake the feeling of being ridiculed by these strangers whenever I walk by them.
What I worry the most is about my family visiting for Commencement next year. There is a week of events for parents and students to attend, endless lunches and dinners and functions to celebrate those graduating. I’m really worried that my parents will come and I won’t have anyone to present to them, that I will spend the whole time answering the question, “Where are your friends? When do we meet them? Who are your friends?” with non-answers. The prospect of not being able to answer these questions scares me more than career failure or a drastic negative change in my fortunes because it will invariably be attributed to me. It will all be my fault. And I really hope that doesn’t happen. I don’t want it to happen. I can’t let it happen.
* * *
The changing seasons serve to remind me of what I’m missing out. Fall reminds me that I don’t know anyone who would take a walk with me under the colorful canopy of the New England fall. Winter reminds me that I have never, EVER made or thrown a snowball, made a snow angel, ridden a dining hall tray down the snow-covered stairs of Widener Library, or shaken a tree to drop snow. The warming Spring tells me that I have never had a picnic on the banks of the Charles River, there is no one with whom I can sit on the Widener Library steps and talk about nothing, that there is no way for me to enjoy the warming weather. Every season is cruel, crushing me and keeping me in my enclosure.
* * *
You need to put yourself out there. You need to get out of your comfort zone and just introduce yourself to strangers. Introduce yourself to everyone near you in the first few classes of the semester. Sit with people who you see eat alone often. Help a stranger out and ask them their name. You need to make them want you to be around them, Diego. Without that, you’re stuck in the same position as you were. Yeah, it means you’ll get rejected some times, but you’re better off for putting yourself out there you won’t feel as anxious when you go to someone else. Hell, it may be all it takes for someone to want you to be around them.
Will you apply some of these things to your life? You have a lot to offer others and there’s no reason for you to be like this, Diego.
I’ll try to apply it, but my worries about rejection often get in the way of action.
But you won’t know that until you’ve done something.
We should seriously consider medication.
* * *
In a May Saturday I left my room around 1 pm for lunch. I walked to a small sandwich place I like, then decided to walk to the Charles River because it was a nice day. As I reached the Charles River from Harvard Square, I decided it would be good to walk along the banks towards Cambridgeport, at which point I would return to Harvard Square. With each subsequent bridge I reached I told myself, “Keep walking.” I didn’t stop this walk until I reached downtown Boston. I had walked almost seven miles in about two and a half hours. It was a great way to spend a few hours, but I was saddened because I couldn’t talk to anyone about it or invite someone when I would next go for such a walk.
* * *
Being in Boston has taught me what it is that I love about Los Angeles. It’s not that it’s home, that I feel I fit in. It’s that it’s here where I feel mainstream. The very cocoon that enveloped me during my childhood does extend to those with college educations. It’s in Los Angeles where I can somehow bring the two together without feeling like a battle rages within me. Here I am the Mexican and the educated individual. Here I feel I can be taken seriously, not just some “ethnic” that has only one role to serve. I can move around more freely with my identity. I can be the schmuck who drives around the industrial lands of Southeast Los Angeles and I can walk around downtown Los Angeles in a suit and not feel like an impostor. I feel I fit in at the bookstores in Santa Monica and coffee shops of Los Feliz, or can at least expect to be treated as if I fit in. I don’t worry about being mainstream, I act as if I am.
* * *
In the past month I’ve been asked a few times if I am still writing on this site. I seriously considered shutting this down, but felt that I wanted the option of returning whenever I wanted. I don’t get as much joy of writing as I once did. Indeed, I now often feel anxious about publishing what I write because I worry about it being thrown back at my face. I no longer care. I am more expressive through this blog than through the spoken medium. Strangers and acquaintances have the option of reading this and I am not worried about this one bit. There is a sort of freedom that comes with publishing something and not returning to it, knowing that my deeply personal feelings about certain subjects are out there for anyone to read. I need to be more open with others. Maybe this is just the beginning.
Today’s April 1st. Most college application decisions should have been sent by today by colleges across the United States. Four years ago I heard back from colleges to which I applied. On that same day, Stanford University’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Richard Shaw, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times.
And in most cases, those denied admission to some schools are admitted to others. The transition from high school to college is a monumental turning point, and it’s more important to focus on how a young adult is moving on to a new stage than where that stage happens to be. This is the moment when parents should mark the success of their children and rejoice in the excitement that the next four years will bring.
And that leads to my final point: Education is what a student makes of it. Of course, certain schools have resources that others don’t, but they all offer opportunities to learn and to grow.
The name of the college you attend is not the be all and end all when selecting which college to attend.
Last semester I took three really great classes and another class that I wish I had devoted more time. Though it was a good class, I did not really take advantage of the material taught. One class focused on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the debates that took place regarding evolution before and after The Origin of Species. I had a great Teaching Fellow who made the already interesting topic and course that much better. There was a lot of writing for that class but it allowed me to get back into the groove of writing papers quickly and engaging with texts. We had a number of great guest lecturers, chief among them a professor of biology who was very animated in his lecture and engaged students with questions. I wish I had been able to devote more time for my English class; I really liked the books that were on the syllabus and the topics, but I could not make more time in my schedule to read every book in the course and did enjoy it as much as I anticipated.
I took a course on the state of the City of Boston that sought to explain to students what took place in the region in the past forty years and why Boston is today the vibrant city for young people. Many power players and civic leaders were lecturers in the course and presented their point of view on the city. When I first came to Harvard I knew I wanted to get to know and engage with Boston and Cambridge because I did not want to say I merely came to school in Cambridge and traveled between Logan International Airport, Boston Common, Kendall and Harvard Squares.
As part of the course, I visited different neighborhoods of Boston and wrote short memos describing what I saw. I explored parts of the city I liked, like East Boston, and parts I had never seen, such as Roxbury and Allston. My TF actually lives in Boston and it was clear when he spoke that he loved the city and the material of the course. I love it here, I really do. I want to live in Boston after graduation, hopefully for a number of years, and work in transportation-related fields. I want to eventually settle back in Los Angeles, but for now, I want to be in Boston. New York City will do, too.
My favorite class of the semester was a small seminar class I took. The material was interesting but what made it more interesting was dealing with my professor. She is a magnificent professor and person. While I cannot go deeper into our conversations, just know that she helped me make it through the first semester back.
* * *
I met someone important this past semester. We shared a class and spoke to each other sometimes in class, but we primarily spoke outside of class. I ran into her on a Friday night after the first class together and we spoke for a bit. As the semester progressed, we got together and talked a lot, whether about class, our selves, our lives, or nothing important, but we talked. We had dinner together a few times and each time was better than the previous meeting. She means a lot to me.
* * *
This year, the Harvard-Yale game was in Boston and I got to see alumni I had not seen for some time. While it was nice to see them again, the whole weekend was covered by a patina of loneliness because there wasn’t a group with which I could spend time with at the Game or any of the activities before the Game. After a quarter of play I left the Game and went to my dorm to do some reading. It was unbearable to be in the crowd, alone (echoing the name of this blog). I so sorely wanted to call Her and spill my guts to Her, but at that point I was unsure if I was overstepping my bounds. November was a pretty bad month for me in terms of conflicting emotions.
Come Thanksgiving I attended a dinner put together by members of one of my extracurricular activities. It’s become tradition to put this together because most of us are students from west of the Mississippi who can’t afford to go back home and would otherwise spend Thanksgiving alone. Last year about twelve of us got together and had our dinner at an alumnus’ house. While I was worried that the divisions of social groups would arise here, it did not. We had frank discussions about issues, ranging from football to dealing with being from a lower socioeconomic background and ways of bridging those gaps with other students. I feel that that dinner let me see facets of others I would not normally have seen and got to understand two people deeper than I normally would.
* * *
The semester ended in a flutter of activity. I had three assignments due at the end of reading period, which fell on December 12th. On the 13th and 14th I had final exams, which led to intense cram sessions the morning of both exams. After finishing everything on the night of the 14th, I spent the morning of the 15th packing because I had my flight back to Los Angeles that evening. I should have waited a bit longer for my flight because I wish I had time to enjoy Cambridge in the winter without worrying about exams. Near the end of the semester, I needed to buy gloves and some socks, so I looked for a bargain store and found it in Central Square, which may be just a mile east from Harvard Square but is worlds apart. It felt strange to be in a bargain store because while these stores are the norm in South Gate and neighboring environs, it was the first time I was in a bargain store in Boston. The products were cheap and nameless, merely advertising what they were or their function (“can opener,” “rat poison,” etc.).
This bargain store was home for me. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents and me going to La Barata or Price City in South Gate to buy furniture and other small needs for our home, scraping by with what we had. The crowd was majority black and Latino, working class or poor buying things they needed before the snow came in and kept some of them in their homes. What bothered me most was that at this particular bargain store I stood out because I was a Harvard student and I am sure others could figure it out. In Los Angeles I am just another Mexican from South Gate, in Cambridge and Boston I am a Harvard student. It was a distinction that bothered me as I walked through the store. I try to fit in as much as possible with the residents of Cambridge and Boston but I always feel that I stand out, even when dressed in the cheapest clothing I own. The closest I ever felt to this in Los Angeles came when I visited Los Feliz over the summer.
* * *
Winter Break was about as fun as it could be. I spent a lot of time at home, partly because I got sick and mostly because I don’t plan in returning to Los Angeles for the summer. I had a few hangouts with mariachi friends, including a jam session that lasted five or six hours. I was in San Francisco for a week in January, visiting my family there. Coincidentally, one of my friends was also there that week, yet neither of us told each other we were visiting San Francisco that week.
The highlight of my winter break was a public service trip to the Navajo Nation of which I was part. I saw a part of the U.S. I’ve always wanted to visit and after that trip, I can say that I want to live in New Mexico for a time after college. I made good connections through the trip with classmates and enjoyed my time with them. While I was reserved for part of the trip, I still tried my best to make friends with them and at very least enjoy my time with them. We even met a Navajo codetalker as we made deliveries.
* * *
As I wrote this and the previous post I realized that I’ve been on WordPress for four years now. More importantly, four years ago I was waiting to hear from colleges about my college applications. At this point last year, I had already received a letter from Stanford, informing me I was accepted. I don’t think back to high school because at this point it was a blur. High school for me ended when the summer between my junior and senior years ended. That last year of high school was a blur of applications, acceptances, personal failures and underlying emotional distress.
I had the luck of not moving as a child and attending neighborhood schools all my life. My social circles from kindergarten to the twelfth grade evolved and devolved naturally, with people leaving the group as they moved to different tracks, schools, cities, or to different positions within the education pipeline (for example, there were students who were marked Gifted in elementary school who had that designation stripped when they entered junior high or high school) and saw their future opportunities limited (PDF). I never worried about being part of social groups in school, but now that I returned to college after such a leave of absence, I ask myself if this is how it feels to move to a new school and try to make friends.
* * *
The past semester was the first one I finished without a bitter taste in my mouth. So here I am, a week into the semester, waiting for my books to arrive and trudging through snow. I need to work on applications for summer jobs but those can be dispatched rather easily. What I do need to do, however, is keep working on establishing connections and maintaining those I have. I can only make so many excuses for staying inside. I need to start asking people to hang out/meet up somewhere, even if just for coffee. I fail myself if I do not at least attempt to bridge this gap.
This post is my attempt to make up for the lack of substantial posts in the past few months. As I wrote earlier, I would focus on school and not write here as often. Sometimes it seemed I had abandoned the site and I considered going the way of Waltarrrrr and just ending the site. The thought of abandoning the site gains steam as I march along the path of higher education towards some sort of professionalized work. I enjoy writing, especially about my experiences, too much to fully stop writing here. I hope to write a few more posts every few months, but since I spent most of my time studying or working, I don’t have time to collect enough material from Boston and Cambridge to report.
* * *
I returned to college this past September after a leave of absence that lasted three semesters, or a year-and-a-half. When I heard news that my petition to return had been accepted, I did not post it on Facebook or call people. Instead, I sat on the news for a few days, then wrote an email to a baker’s dozen of close contacts and informed them I was returning to college but to keep the news quiet. Only three are currently students in the Boston area, the rest are alumni.
I left college quietly and returned to college with just as little fanfare. I arrived in Boston on the last move-in day because of the constricted schedule I had after hearing of my approved return. The only thing I did to publicly announce my return was a simple Facebook status message reading “Diego is back at Harvard.”
The first week was full of really awkward encounters with classmates. Since few knew I had returned, I’m sure they were shocked to just suddenly see me back on campus. Those who started with me in 2007 were by then beginning their senior and I had been their classmate for just the first half of the previous three years. Some people who I thought I got along with did not recognize me when I returned and with some I acted as if I did not remember them. The strongest shock was simply the change of locale; I had become accustomed to being in Los Angeles, working and living with my parents. My life sped up in almost breakneck speed.
Name tags are put on room doors to identify who lives where and (often) where they are from. When I reached my door, I saw the name tag did not read “Diego,” it read “David.” I cursed my luck. I was often confused for “David” because I was friends and looked similar to a “David.” He and I were often confused for each other to the point that we started joking about switching our names in social situations.
* * *
I don’t live in a shared room or a suite. I really like living alone after the stress that came with living with others in my freshmen year. The largest problem I had was that I was often cleaning for others. My threshold for dirt and mess was much lower than my roommates and I found myself cleaning a lot and cursing how we lived. I am really in my room only to sleep and it works its purpose just fine. The sun wakes me up by eight in the morning and I can make noise without bothering or getting in the way of roommates. I had most of my meals last semester in my House because I had a schedule that permitted me to return and eat all meals.
I was invited to my House’s Sophomore Outing when I returned and met a few students there, but mostly spoke with Tutors (graduate students who live in the House) and met a few with whom I connected. Maybe it was just a childish connection to the first people you meet anywhere, but I’ve kept talking and meeting with them. In a House without roommates or friends, that connection helps bind me to the House. If it weren’t for the conversations and connections I’ve made with the Tutors, I’m sure I’d despise living in my House because then I’d really have no one to talk to in the House.
I did rejoin the two extracurricular activities I was involved with before taking time off and reintegrating was a trip in itself. Here were two social groups that had evolved since I left and I felt I had to play catch-up with gossip, life, etc. to fit in. Honestly, I still feel like the odd man out in one of the activities. While groups of friends formed and they go and mingle with the other friendship groups that are part of the extracurricular activity, I’m the one without friends, a relic of a social class that is almost out the door. I feel it’s hard for me to break into the social groups because I don’t share the social history that they do and without that it will be hard for them to accept me in the group. I don’t give up; it’s tough, but if at the very least I get invited to a few things, I’ll be content.
All through my childhood and adolescence I never had a birthday party. Every so often my parents would buy a cake, but that was the extent of the celebration. Because I was in Track B in the LAUSD’s (link) year-round calendar, I was on vacation and nowhere near classmates on my birthdays. It wasn’t until the 11th grade that I was in school during my birthday because South East High School opened and eased the overcrowding at South Gate High School (click here to see SGHS quantified). I had already internalized a dislike for my birthday by the time I reached adolescence and so I cared very little for it.
My distaste carried on into college, where if it weren’t for my freshmen-year roommates telling people it was my birthday, no one would have known. I shared my birthday with someone in the next room, so I accepted the entryway-wide celebration. The following year I spent my birthday alone and no one knew it was my birthday, making it the perfect birthday for me. I don’t know why I felt so uncomfortable with my birthday; I think it might be the sudden heaping of attention from others on a day for no reason but to celebrate another year gone.
This past year I decided my birthday would be different. Since I was turning 21, I invited a few people to dinner and to a bar. It was small and just the way I liked it because I didn’t feel uncomfortable in any of the social situations that day. Other than my birthday and three other instances, I didn’t go out on weekend nights last semester. I decided to readjust to being in school this past semester. Parties can wait and making friends takes time, but I am held accountable for my grades at the end of the semester.
* * *
At the only party I attended last semester I ran into a few Wellesley students I knew from before taking time off. When they saw me, one of them looked at me and screamed, “David!” and walked over. I corrected her (she confused me for my aforementioned friend) and we spoke and caught up with each other as best as you can when you have five minutes with each other.