Introductory Note: In July 2016, I returned to Saint Mary’s University, CBU’s sister school in Winona, Minnesota, to teach in the Countdown to College (C2C) program. The program seeks to provide would-be first generation students from underrepresented groups a pathway to college. As part of the final graduation ceremony for students completing their 4th year of C2C before they head into their final year of high school, I was asked to have some of the students share from the work their prepared in our college writing course. I also posted my 2015 remarks here.
The election of Donald Trump has led to increased fears from Latinx students about the educational futures, as the president-elect has vowed to end DACA. To suggest the students granted DACA should be deported is to misunderstand their contributions to our society and economy. In hearing the fears of some of my CBU students in the past 5 days, I understand their fear, and I know that we must fight to preserve DACA and to offer sanctuary to these students.
In the spirit of standing in solidarity of all underrepresented students affected by Trump’s proposed agenda and in dedication to standing next to these students in the struggle to come, I share my 2016 C2C graduation remarks. We can learn a lot from the wisdom these students have gained in situations and neighborhoods that have already been too neglected and too dangerous.
Please call your elected officials and ask them to pressure the president-elect to preserve DACA so the hardworking students protected by it can continue to pursue the educations that will help them forge the more just future from which we will all benefit.
C2C 2016 Graduation Remarks | 15 July 2016
Good afternoon. I am Dr. Jeffrey Gross; I am an English professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. CBU is a sister Lasallian university to Saint Mary’s. For me, and for all of the C2C faculty and staff, it has been a tremendous honor to work with this group of dedicated and talented students. At its core, Lasallian education focuses on the intersection of faith, service, and community. From designing science projects focused on improving water quality in their home communities, to discussing Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato si’, to writing about place and identity, these students have embraced the intellectual rigor, the community focus, and the faith commitments of this tradition.
C2C works from the premise that any deserving student should have the opportunity to earn a college education. It is through education that today’s students will become the leaders who will address the problems that ail our towns, cities, and society. These students understand the seriousness of the challenges we face. Hafeez P. reflects on the influence of his neighborhood on his drive to change his circumstances and to escape the traps of gangs and crime.
Not only did Back of the Yards help to shape my instinct, but it also formed a deep drive for success and a desire to leave a place that tries to chain anyone down and claim anyone it can like many of those who have fallen to gang violence. Then the unfortunate individual ends up with their very own memorial shrine with a picture of their brightest smile, surrounded by candles, bears, and posters, and in the night the candle gives its soft illuminating light to commemorate the bright and short life once lived. When I walk up to the memorial shrine to see who was claimed by the neighborhood, the reflection of my face replaces the one in the photo and makes me realize that any given moment, it could be me. This added fuel to the deep burning desire and drive within me. It’s what gets me up in the dark cold mornings, gets me dressed for school, and carries me as I trudge to school because of the restless nights of doing homework or studying for important exams. Seeing all the men and women in my neighborhood going to or coming from their jobs with the dark heavy bags under their eyes from tiresome work, the dirt and dust from their work clothes, and the constant worrying of money weighing heavy upon them, is something I don’t want to live through.
The students’ desire to pursue their education is not an individual choice. They recognize the sacrifices their parents and extended families make. Parents and families, in allowing your children to spend these last 2 weeks, and 2 weeks each of the past 3 years, away from home, you demonstrate your commitment to the future. Jose P. remembers the hard work of both of his parents, each driving him toward education and a more comfortable life.
I see my mother as a strong woman who had to take care of my siblings and me. To this day I am not sure how she did it, but she showed me how to be strong in every situation. I remember the days when we would have to take the bus to go to the grocery store because we did not have a car. It was tough when it was hot. I believe it was harder on my mother because she had to take care of us trouble makers all at once. Although we caused her to get mad at times by not listening to her or breaking things on accident at the store, she would still love us at the end of the day. My father is one of the hardest working men I have ever seen. When I was four I always wanted to go to work with my father just so that I could be with him. Every time I asked him he would laugh and say, “You’re too little and I don’t want you to be working.” I never understood why he told me that until I matured enough to understand. He went to work from five in the morning until eight at night. I saw the tired face he had everyday, but he did it in order to give us everything my siblings and I asked for. Things became more difficult when his hours were cut at work. There were some days when he didn’t work, but we managed to stay strong because we had each other.
Like Jose, Edgar M. recalls his father’s selfless devotion to his family and a hope for the future, despite the sorts of discrimination that affect his parents’ opportunities for employment.
My dad works all day and my mom works in the morning. I do not see my dad until the weekend. Even though I know he has to work a lot for us, it hurts not to see him. Both my parents cannot get well paying jobs because they were not born here. Since I was born here, they wanted me to take advantage of my opportunities. They want me to get a high paying job. My dad has diabetes and working with diabetes is hard. He works at Taco Bell in the mornings and as a janitor at night. He is always on his feet. He comes home and his feet are swollen. He only gets five hours of sleep everyday. He is a hard working man. I want to help him by working more, but he does not want me to do that. He wants me to focus on my education and he knows Cristo Rey is going to help me get into a great college.
For Edgar, his father’s work keeps him from being here for today’s ceremony, as his employer would not allow him to take the day off.
In addition to their backbreaking hours at work, the parents of today’s C2C graduates showed resilience in the face of challenges, always seeking to get their students into the best available schools and programs. Cesar M. recalls being pushed into classes and tutoring by his mother, and reflects on the value of his learning.
My computer class instructor was la Maestra Manso, an average-sized woman with coarse dark hair, and a patient personality. Before coming there, I knew there were buttons on a keyboard and that was it. After making me memorize the position of a set of letters on the keyboard, la Maestra Manso would give me another set of letters to memorize until I was able to type them without looking at the keyboard. I did not like typing, and I did not see the point in going to this class, but it is because of this class that I can now type faster than one letter a second. Complaining did me nothing, but I did it anyway, and la Maestra Manso complained to me about how much I complained. I liked her, but I did not like that class. I asked her why she didn’t teach something more fun, but she said she needed to work there or else the children wouldn’t learn to type. When I left that class, it was because I finished the course. I had memorized all the keys on the keyboard, and as soon as I finished the course, I knew that I never wasted a second in that room. Before that class, I typed a paragraph five times slower than I did write one, but now I can type what I can write in a third of that time. I gave thanks to la Maestra Manso and she told me “me las debes,” which means, you owe me.
All of our graduates today share Cesar’s commitment to finishing what they started. Even at their young ages, these students enact the Lasallian vision of community. It would be a mistake to look at them solely as the recipients of the Lasallian tradition. They also enact it and carry it forward. They give back and work to bring about a more just society. They offer us visions for a better future. Sergio P. understands that we, through service, can change ourselves.
I found that many people who are experiencing homelessness are very considerate and are very open for conversation. For example, one man I met named Daniel told me about how he became homeless. He told me that he grew up without a home and that he never had a place to live and sleep in. I was surprised at his answer and felt sorry for him. Then he told me that despite the hardships he went through, he was just happy that he was still alive and that he had friends to talk to. Talking with individuals experiencing homelessness gave me a lot of insight into what they think about, how they manage their situation, and what their attitude is towards their being. From that experience, I have grown to be more grateful for what I have by saying “thank you” to others more often and saying it more sincerely, I became more attentive to the actions others do for me and helped them out if they needed any, and I began to pray more for anyone in need.
Sergio teaches us that our spirituality should be a way of being and a way of learning more about ourselves and each other. These are the foundations and challenges of community.
Finally, Victoria A. will share a slightly abridged version of her essay, “Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos: My Second Family,” which reflects on the importance of her Mariachi group on her development as a person and student. More broadly, Victoria asks us to think about two themes important to C2C, la familia and education. Victoria demonstrates the ways a group of individuals who come together and work toward a common goal can make a difference, and she calls on us to make sure all students have access to opportunities to learn and share their cultures through the artistic endeavor of music. What she says about mariachi also applies to college and C2C It’s my great honor to introduce Victoria A.
Note: rather than reproducing all of Victoria’s essay here, I have kept one brief excerpt.
I personally believe that everyone should have the opportunity to listen to, watch, or play mariachi music. I believe in this so strongly because I know the values of the Mexican culture and how they can improve lives if they are experienced. Three core values are hard work, family, and most of all pride. Latinos work so hard to get to their goals, and they don’t let obstacles set them back. For Latinos, there are no such thing as setbacks; instead, we turn those obstacles into lessons. You can see that the family unit is strongly present in the Mexican culture by how we live our daily lives. We eat every possible meal together, we go to church together, and when we have parties, we invite everyone in the familia, even if they’re not related through blood. The biggest trait that Mexicans possess is pride. We take pride in our last names, our food, the work we do, and most of all our culture. It can’t be stressed enough how important this is to us, yet we are humble in all we do. Being able to play mariachi is so powerful because I build strong bonds with the people I play with and play for, and it helps me to learn more about my culture and how I can share it throughout my life. My passion for mariachi isn’t something that can just disappear; it’s always going to be there, and I plan on continuing to share this passion with anyone and everyone that’s willing to listen for as long as I can.