Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Turning Point

Dear Christina,

You made it! College was the biggest dream you had and here you are! I know there were times you thought this day would never come. Nights you worried that you weren't smart enough, did not have the talent or the courage to go away to school, and how were you going to pay for it anyway? As those acceptance letters came in those feelings began to melt, but new worries crept in. You doubted that you would finish. You are an expert worrier and you thought of every reason why college wouldn't happen. Nice try, but you are too Type A to allow this dream to slip through your fingers. You're not here by your own accord. You made it because of the love, support, and sacrifice of your parents and their belief that you could do it. You'd prefer to die than let them down, so even though it was scary, you did what had to be done.

Don't be upset that you bypassed Columbia University, Grinnell, Oberlin and NYU for a state school. It had everything you were looking for, plus you felt safer on campus than you have ever felt in your life. Trust that instinct you felt when you walked on campus. This place will open doors you haven't even thought of. It will create relationships that extend well beyond your undergrad degree. It will be about so much more than what you learn in the labs and lecture halls. You come into true independence and it is the most freeing time of your life.

Thanks to your college prep high school, you are more than academically ready and for the first time in a long time, you get to focus on a social life and not stress so much over your grades. It's called a school/life balance and learning it now bleeds into your work/life balance of the future. Have your fun, go to the parties, make a ton of friends, do study abroad, go the football games (you finally have a school team to cheer for!), dress in school colors, and love every minute guilt-free. Yes, you will feel guilty having such a good time away from your family, but you need this. You have earned it. Denying yourself the fun times won't change anything at home. Allow the growth that comes with having those experiences. They are as important to your development as are the hours you put into clubs, electives, studying and mentoring.

You didn't think about it at the time, but you making it to college away from home is inspiring others. Once you realize that, you have the responsibility to pay it forward and support those around you. Lucky for you that ISU had the Early Success Program that not only took you in when you were a first-year, first-generation student but gave you your first opportunity to teach at the college-level. That love for teaching will never leave you. Watching those students thrive and survive some of the same obstacles you did will be some of the more rewarding work you do while as an undergrad.

Aside from loving your role as a Peer Mentor, the friendships you make with your students and fellow mentors bring you so much joy and add depth to your experience. It was a lot of work to plan class sessions while juggling eighteen credit hours, but you'd do it all again if you had the chance and that says a lot for a chance you took at nineteen that set the path of much of your college days.

The tests you ace here will be more than As and Bs on a transcript. They will be about yourself. You will learn what you are actually made of and what you can do when facing tough decisions. That month you spend with no more than ten dollars to your name will teach you lessons that come back to you time and time again. It will suck, but in the end, you will be grateful for those times when your survival skills kicked in.

The best thing about your undergrad experience is that you realize your love of academia. It will push you to get a Masters and work at a university, where you feel most at home. You would be a professional student if you had the funds to support that, and that is awesome. Let it push you to a Ph.D. and beyond!

Adelante, si se puede!

A more enlightened Christina

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Dear Christina,

So you think high school is the worse time of your life? Ha! If you only knew what awaits you.

Unfortunately, it will be the first time you experience racism and classism. You won't even know that's what's happening when the head of the language department tells you that you can't take Spanish as a foreign language because of your surname and implies that you are only trying to get an easy A. You won't get it when the headmaster pulls you and all the other kids of color out of class for a special "ethics" lesson where he basically accuses you of theft and reminds you of the privilege you've been bestowed by attending that school (as if you hadn't busted your butt studying to get scholarships that pay your tuition, and in turn his salary). Never mind that every student of color in that room knew exactly who had been stealing out of people's lockers and the culprit was still sitting in class because his skin color didn't match the color in the room. That girl who asked if one of your parents is white is the first in a series. Have a little fun with it. Next time someone asks where you're from, make up some obscure place, or turn the tables and ask them the same thing and don't take "American" and "white" as acceptable answers.

In a way, you should thank all those kids who looked at you funny, never asked you to sit with them in the cafeteria, mispronounced your last name, and stared at you in class. They are getting you over your culture shock so that when you move to Iowa and follow a predominantly white career path you will know how to see past it, ignore it and rise above it all without being bothered. And all those high school boys who look past you and make you feel ugly? Rest assured that you will come across many others who will make you feel beautiful and who will not exoticize you. Be proud that you did not chase them or settle, but that you looked right past them, too. 

Relish that A in Dr. Nguyen's chemistry class. It's the hardest A you've fought for yet and you should be proud of it. Most of the time you take good grades for granted, but you worked really hard for this one, studying late into the night, missing hours of work to go to extra labs and office hours, and asking your college student cousin for help. I'm still proud of you for that one!

You are a warrior. That school and those times you cried because you wanted to transfer but stuck it out were a major battle and you overcame. You lived in two entirely different worlds and you made it work. At home, you feel like an outsider and people you've known your whole life call you a sellout and ask you why you "talk white". Don't be insulted by their ignorance and don't feel bad about your education, diction or vocabulary. At school, you feel out of place and unwelcome. Hold your head up and remember that you earned a place there more so than the kids who got there because of mommy and daddy's bank account. When you feel lonely and isolated remember this: You are paving the way for the Latinas who will come after you and you will support them in the way you wish you had been supported. One day you will be proud of that. You won't realize until years later how important it is to have support in academia. 

You don't believe this now, but one day you will look back on high school and remember the good times. You will come away from there with friends who will stand at your wedding and spend time with your daughter. While you will never care to return to that place, you will still recall the pride you felt the day you were accepted, and what that meant not only for you but for your parents who sacrificed just as much and worked twice as hard as you did to get there. It will be their victory when you walk across that stage and accept your diploma. This place and time was a necessary step to thicken your skin for what was to come. And honestly, it had its bright moments and once you are far enough removed, it will be a lot easier to remember them fondly.

Friends who made high school bearable

A reflective adult Christina

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

You Are Enough

Dear Christina,

Middle school is tough, but it's going to change your life. Don't despair because you get teased. That won't matter in a few years. I know you don't like yourself very much, and I wish you could see yourself the way I do now when I look back at you. 

You are not ugly. Your flat nose, frizzy hair and round face are trademarks from your parents who are intensely proud of you. They connect you to your dad who still sees you as his little girl. Your curls bounce and twist like your mom's did when she was younger. That's why she took the time to comb through it, condition it and care for it since you were a baby. One day your curls will make you stand out, will be admired and you will love them. Take care of them, and stop trying to tame them with sticky gels and dollar store mousse. It thirsts for natural oils and conditioner. Treat it well.

You are not a whale. Stop looking at yourself and seeing a girl who is too fat to deserve love and attention. Stop wishing you were disciplined enough to stop eating and become anorexic because one day you will battle bulimia and it will be awful. You will find yourself curled over a toilet bowl, wishing you could stop but not strong enough to allow food to sit inside you more than fifteen minutes. It will plague you well into your twenties and cause some scary moments like passing out in a movie theater and the burden of hiding this secret from those you love. You are healthy and strong and you will be loved by wonderful men more than you ever imagined and it will have nothing to do with your size or your weight.

Your friends are treasures. You will fight with them, be hurt by them and hurt them right back, but that will not be the end of the world. The ones that are true will stick around through the ups and downs and the ones who don't care will go on about their lives without you in it. In their place will come other friends to teach you about yourself and life lessons. Don't care so much what everyone thinks of you. You are a good person and the friends who will matter know that about you. You are likable and that will carry into high school, college and beyond. Friends will grow into family and you will rely on them when you most need to and they will do the same with you. Sometimes you question the validity of your friendships and that's OK. Believe it or not, your best friend today will be your friend decades from now and you will find a certain comfort in the short times you spend together and thankful for the rich history you share.

Remember how I said middle school would change your life? Well all those hours you spend memorizing spelling words, reading and agonizing over math homework are going to lead to more of that, but it will be your ticket out. All those nights you spend praying to get out of Chicago, praying that God will help you find a way to get your family out of the hood will pay off through your education. I know you're scared and have nightmares about your father getting shot walking home from work, and of getting raped on the bus on your way to school, but none of that will happen. You will survive and you will get your family out of there. Take chances and make the sacrifices necessary for your future. In the grand scheme of your life, you won't miss the sleepovers you weren't allowed to go to or the time at the mall that you missed. You'll remember that you started digging yourself and your family out of the hood at age twelve and you will never regret a moment of that. 

Relax. You put the weight of the world on your shoulders all the time and it will become a horrible habit. You will have sore shoulders the rest of your life if you keep this up. You can only control you. There is nothing you can do about the place you live. You cannot change the people around you. All the babysitting money in the world isn't going to pay for your tuition or buy your parents a house, but I admire your tenacity at saving. One day that will get you out of debt by age thirty, and save you when you face the hardest time of your life. Keep valuing hard work and living below your means and in time you will be rewarded with awesome experiences and some impressive stamps on your passport.

Above all, love yourself. Stop wondering why you were born, or if you matter. You do. You are preparing yourself for something greater than what is around you but you have to believe that you can achieve it. The only way you can do that is to care about yourself. Be easier on yourself about failures because they are inevitable. They will be lessons learned and you'll see that they will not be the end of the world. Learn and move forward.

It may be hard to believe, but you will look back on these days as some of the simplest times and miss them. Don't be in such a hurry to get to what's coming next. It's a nasty habit you'll battle well into your thirties and probably beyond, so try easing up now.


You in your late thirties.

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