I wrote a blog post titled “What comes next?” The Arduous Process of Applying for Graduate School a few months back. In it, I promised to answer the question, “what comes next [after Oberlin]?” I dreaded that question in early December, and despite knowing where I will be in the fall, the question still gets me anxious. But following the rhetoric used in the one-hour special The Decision by basketball prodigy Lebron James in 2010 announcing that he will be joining the Miami Heat in South Beach, I will be taking my talents to the West Coast in September and join Stanford University. I won’t be playin’ ball. I’ll be there for a doctoral program in Education. The program I’ll be joining is titled Race, Ideology, and Language in Education (RILE), which is new and still forming its identity, but I am excited to be part of this process and the larger Stanford community.
Phew, that was a mouthful. It’s crazy to me how college was nothing but a distant thought when I was in high school (check out: College Journey: Chicago --> Oberlin), but for graduate school, it was not a matter of whether I was going to go, rather where. I spoke to my family and close friends before making my final decision. At first, my mother was sad to hear that I had no intention of moving back to Chicago after Oberlin. She had assumed that going to college meant you were away for four years and then you get to go back home. But then she called me the next day and affirmed me that whichever decision I made she would support it. At the time, re-hearing my mother’s unconditional support helped make my decision about where to go post-Oberlin. Let me tell you why her words were more meaningful than any other advice I got from others. Before coming to Oberlin in August of 2014, I wrote my mother a letter. I struggled to put into words how much I appreciated the love, support, and work she and my father have put into my life. I waited until we finished unloading all of my stuff from the truck and took it to my room in Kahn to hand my mother the letter. I told her to read it on the road. She was too emotional to respond so she leaned in for a hug and she gave me la bendición (the blessing-- typically given to me by her whenever I went anywhere). I wrote the following:
Mamá, como te dije el año pasado, ahora es el tiempo donde ya crecieron mis alas y es mi tiempo de volar. Ustedes me enseñaron muchas cosas y me enseñaron cómo volar. Ahora necesito seguir aprendiendo, enfocarme en mis estudios, y enseñarme cómo seguir volando.
Translation: Mom, like I told you last year, now is the time when my wings have grown and it is my time to fly. You all have taught me so much and you taught me how to fly. Now I need to keep learning, focus on my studies, and learn to keep flying.
I referenced the coming of age cycle for butterflies in this letter. Butterflies are one of my mom’s favorite species and a popular emblem to the immigrant rights movement. That is why I rolled with the ‘wings’ and ‘flying’ rhetoric in the letter and why she brought it up again when I spoke with her about graduate school. She has witnessed the ways that I have mended my broken wings throughout Oberlin and encouraged me to take my talents to Stanford. After all, she said, “se que tus alas llegan hasta alla” // “I know your wings will reach all the way there.”
I made my decision public to my friends and peers in person, through phone calls, and via Facebook. I received tons of support from them too, but also a bag full of disbelief, doubt, and degradation. I got the whole affirmative action spiel too as if somehow admission representatives from other colleges and universities heard that I was first gen, Mexican American, and Posse, and then suddenly handed me a graduate school offer. That’s not how it works.
I put in a lot of work. Getting into graduate school is extremely hard and competitive. I contemplated giving up during and after the application process because of how tedious it was to compile a research proposal and statement of purpose. See, people tend to forget that despite success or failure, we put a bunch of work and effort into something to achieve a certain outcome. Nobody but close friends, mentors, and family witnessed my frustrations and failures at Oberlin. I’d stay up late reading as many words as I could, tried to make sense of scholarly work to then compile an articulate argument for an assignment, and attempted to retain as much information as I could for exams and class discussions. This is of course not a new thing for college students. But for me reading was difficult and took me longer than it should have. My argumentative skills lacked substance and I remained silent in class despite knowing the content being discussed, simply because I did not sound as smart as others did when they spoke. I spent my breaks upping my vocabulary game, hoping that it would help my academics. It did. But I say this all to show that, day in and day out, I spent endless hours trying to focus on improving myself as a scholar. I had many shortcomings, of course, but those are lessons not failures and proved to benefit me in the grad school application process.
In spite of the tremendous love and support from many, I still internalized much of the negativity thrown at me. It’s hard not to. Recently, an interaction I had with someone who I admire fondly changed this. I was sitting in the science atrium working on a discussion leader memo for our sociology theory class and my friend tells me (not verbatim) that she knew no one in close proximity that has gotten into a school like Stanford, but seeing me get in motivated her to believe that she can also get into a school like that. Of course she can! I thought to myself. I must have gotten something inside of my eye when she said this because I felt a tear trying to push itself out of my eyes. I held myself together. Her words stuck with me. She reminded me of how tough it is to get into schools like Stanford. How it is not expected for a young brother from the Southwest side of Chicago to make it out the hood, to show pride in his Mexican roots but still be able to succeed academically in a space not meant for people like us. But here we are, here I am, showing how our stories, histories, and work ethic are integral to our success and lessons we endure in academic spaces like Oberlin. I owe it to my friend for this reminder that set everything else into a perspective away from the negative one blurring my vision from the value of my work and forthcoming transition to Stanford.
What comes next? I am not certain. Grad school will be hard. Probably harder than it was to get in. But at least I know where my destination will be and know that I will get there with the intelligence, support, and resilience that has accumulated during my time in Oberlin. Just like I told my mother four years ago, “now I need to keep learning, focus on my studies, and learn to keep flying.” The sky’s the limit.