Lessons Learned: How to become the person you are meant to be

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Jackie Hu/The Occidental

My name is Yenni Guadalupe Gonzalez Salinas and I am a daughter of immigrants. As I was growing up, my mother instilled in me an appreciation for education. Before dropping me off at school, she would say, “I want you to be so much better than me and to continue your studies.” So I aspired to be the person that the fearless women in my life wanted me to become. The dreams and goals of my great grandmother, grandmother and mother are in my hands to carry out.

Being raised in South Nashville, Tenn. meant that college was not an easily accessible possibility for me. So when I received the news that I had been accepted to Occidental, weeping, I hugged my mom and thanked her for all of the sacrifices she had made for my education. At that moment, I knew exactly what I had to do. Against my mother’s wishes, I got a job as a server that would allow me to pay for my education and everything that came with it. As I finished my last three months of high school, I balanced being a full-time student and working 35-40 hours a week to make my dreams a reality. That was when I received an email about applying to attend the Multicultural Summer Institute, which I would have loved, as it allows first year students to gain insight into the classroom environment and resources available for their transition into an elite institution. But that would have meant quitting my job and asking my mom to help me pay for my education – I couldn’t allow her to sacrifice anything more than she already had. Instead, I stayed at home and worked 40-60 hours a week in the summer before college. Before I knew it, I was on campus, but the fire that drove me had disappeared.

The first wave of sadness hit me when I saw my peers’ parents move them in. I was missing my mother, who had to stay at home while I moved in with the help of a mentor. Those feelings were later exacerbated and I was suffering from imposter syndrome. I convinced myself that I was not maximizing my opportunities in college as the first person in my family to attend. Consequently, I worked day and night, believing that I had not studied hard enough, participated enough in class or become involved enough within Occidental to deserve a break. With the voices in my head reminding me that I was not worthy of being at this school, I internalized the idea that I was a nobody at this institution, and at that point in my college career I didn’t have a mentor to convince me otherwise.

The pressure of trying to not mess up, carrying the aspirations of my family on my shoulders and going through the hardest breakup with one of my closest friends made me feel as if I had stepped in quicksand and was slowly choking on choices that I had made. I did not have the courage or heart to call my mother, my biggest supporter, to tell her that I was struggling in every aspect possible. While the thought of dropping out crossed my mind, I knew I could not follow through, as I would not only have failed the people who had sacrificed everything for me to be where I was, but also fail those who would come after me. With nobody to turn to, having lost one of my dearest friends and feeling suffocated, I shut down, until I met an Equity Ambassador who changed my college journey and perspective on life.

They became the mentor, friend and older sibling that I needed. They focused on creating safe and welcoming spaces for students who do not identify with the culture of this Predominantly White Institution (PWI). They focused on giving students like myself the support they needed to succeed in this environment. Every single time there was a Latinx Student Union event, they would push me out of my comfort zone and encourage me— correction, peer pressure me — to attend. We had conversations about how Occidental continuously failed students like us. We spoke about how some faculty members were exhausted with the burden of gluing students back together after having a bad experience with administration. We cried out of frustration at community listening sessions together because it drained the life out of us to, once again, inform administrators of our needs and how they continued to be unmet. They were the person who taught me to use my voice, as it had the capability to move oceans and mountains. These are among the chief reasons that I have decided to continue my education at Occidental. Now that they have gone on to graduate school, I believe it is my turn to pass on the knowledge that I was given.

By meeting people and surrounding myself with students who underwent similar experiences, I learned that I was not alone. The emotions I felt were shared by several students, but they simply weren’t spoken about enough. Understanding that helped me find and use my powerful voice to advocate for more resources for students who identify as first-generation, low-income and people of color.

Being at this institution doesn’t get easier alone, so please don’t suffer in silence. Find mentors who you trust and who demonstrate a genuine interest in your life to become the people who you can speak to if you are having the absolute worst or best day of your life. Reach out to anyone — including myself — if you are struggling, because a lot of us have been through what you are going through and understand that this is difficult. It is supposed to be tough, but with the support of people who love and care about you, it will become a learning and growing experience. My mother once said, “You’re going to fall down, but you have to get back up.” So, when you do fall, just know that you’ll have an entire community waiting to applaud you when you get up and ask for help. You aren’t alone.