Op-Ed: A First-Generation Latino in North Carolina
Posted: Dec 28 2014
By David Román
In the Beginning. Growing up, I noticed I had a special interest for helping others, but it was not until I entered high school that I discovered where my passions for helping people lay. I am a first-generation Colombian, but the social, racial, and ethnic distinctions within my community went unnoticed until 9th grade. Being a new student in such a large school, I felt displaced in my surroundings. Suddenly, I began to notice the cliques everyone was a part of: athletes, nerds, popular people, loners, Asians, Latinos, and so on. I began to see the differences between and within each group. Most importantly, I became acutely aware of the ways that each group interacted with members of each in-group and out-group. It was not a matter I concerned myself with because I was Hispanic or of a darker complexion, but because it simply became clear to me that group formation was a core concept for humans to follow, and that by doing so under such simple categorizations, the human race was prone to dysfunction.
As a first-generation Latino, I was particularly interested in associating with others who still wanted to have a connection with their parents' home culture-meaning I was relegated to the periphery, never quite fitting in or feeling complete in any one group. By junior year, I had been involved in a variety of groups, and felt comfortable in them, but also felt displeased about their relationship with one another. Although I was accepted by various groups, the groups themselves remained entirely independent, and I noticed that the minority huddles were especially viewed as outsiders-inferior. In particular, I saw deep animosity with the Latinos who typically remained completely separate from others, mostly because they were not able to communicate well in English. I still remember the expressions some non-Hispanic peers had when they saw a group of Latinos passing by, speaking Spanish; I recall their expressions being most distasteful.
My experiences as a Latino in segregated environments correlated with an increased sense of community pride, and my commitment to public service grew to include advocacy on behalf of Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities. In my pursuit to get more involved with the Latino community in North Carolina (NC), I became associated with the NC Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the NC Society of Hispanic Professionals, two organizations highly engaged in advancing the professional, societal, and educational aspirations of community members.
The Next Step. Leaving high school, I went on to pursue higher education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), holding an interest in global studies and business management. Because Charlotte, NC was a rapidly growing city, I figured that the Latino community would be represented in abundance and that I would be able to find comfort through associating with others with Hispanic heritage. Aside from the aspects of selecting a university, simply enrolling in one seemed like the natural path to follow. With both of my parents holding a university degree, I was raised with the mentality that university was the next step after high school-not work, military, nor trade school. Of course at the time, I had no idea just how challenging it would be to be immersed in a rigorous scholastic environment on my own.
The first month at UNCC went extremely well. I excelled in my courses, became very sociable with my peers, and connected with the Latino student body. I felt that everything was going the way it was supposed to, and that by doing well in class and engaging with student organizations, I was doing a remarkable job in representing Latino youth in the United States. It felt as though university was my gateway into learning a great deal about myself-and it was-because after the peak of my progress came a rather steep decline. About two months in to the semester, I started feeling weary from pushing myself so hard in my academics and student-social life. One thing led to another, and my drive to excel was heading to a halt, in terms of both doing well in class and engaging with enriching Latino peers. Whether it was that being away from home too long finally got to me, my lack of maturity, or making foolish decisions-I ended up leaving UNCC just three months in to the first semester.
The Fall. Upon returning home, I felt as if I failed myself, my family and friends, and everyone in the community who believed in me. It was a low point in my life to return home without any plan for the future. If anything, I became the defeated Latino who just didn't know better, but it was at this time when I adopted a creative mentality. While my parents continuously pressed for finishing my education, I was busy coming up with alternative routes-becoming an actor, getting a job and climbing up the corporate ladder, or practicing a trade. My mind was racing, lost in a state of frenzy, but was calmed when I narrowed my options to becoming an actor or attending community college. I still remember the day when I earned a position as an extra for a video clip, an opportunity I found online. I recall looking through multiple sites for aspiring actors, seeing what each producer was looking for, and discovering that the only role I could find for myself out of hundreds of openings was to be a Latino laborer. Believe it or not, but this opportunity seemed very worthwhile at the time. Out of coincidence, the day I was asked to show up for the video shoot was the same day I was scheduled to take my placement exams for college. For the most part, I was against pursuing my education since I felt I would just stumble like I did at UNCC, but I took a chance and decided to put my education over acting. And with that-I was on my way to beginning anew at Wake Technical Community College.
The Climb. Initially a skeptic of community colleges since I had a negative perception of these institutions and did not own a car to drive myself to school, I was hesitant about attending Wake Tech. Even so, my parents undeniably emphasized the Latino aspect of "family" when they assured me they would do everything they could to make it possible for me to fulfill my educational aspirations. Entering the first semester with a lineup of the only classes left for me to choose from, and being dropped off at school before my mother went to work, I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I did know was that I was going to put forth my best effort in using my experiences to propel me to a more positive future. That being said, even though I reluctant to get involved with student communities at first, I personally made certain to earn an A in each of my classes.
The first semester at Wake Tech was far from easy, but very rewarding upon completion. Still feeling a need to make up for the credits I missed from UNCC, I took the initiative to make up for them over the summer, and by the start of the third semester, was back on track to where I needed to be. At this point, I had already applied and been accepted to be a Senator for the Student Government Association (SGA). Through surrounding myself with other campus leaders and participating in school-wide events through the SGA, I was exposed to an abundance of resources and outstanding individuals. And even though I was usually the only Latino involved with school activities, this new lifestyle thrived through my increased involvement with student organizations such as the Wake Tech Inspirational Choir, International Friends Club, Phi Theta Kappa, Sigma Alpha Pi, and Phi Beta Lambda. It was as if my positivity was a magnet for other positive influences, and my progress only heightened.
The Fruits of February 20, 2014. During my final semester at Wake Tech, little did I know what waited for me. I had been invited to attend a celebratory event for the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals (NCSHP), when on the same day, I crossed paths with a group of Wake Tech executives. Through a quick meet-and-greet with the officials, I ended up talking to Wake Tech President, Dr. Stephen Scott, who personally introduced me to Congressman David Price (NC-04) when he came to visit the campus. As a young Latino with aspirations to enter the political field, it was an incredible honor to meet such an exceptional leader. By this point, I was accustomed to following up with people I met and establishing deeper relationships. This helped not only when I stayed in touch with the Latino leaders from the NCSHP event, but also when I contacted Congressman Price's staffers and inquired about avenues for political involvement.
After learning about Congressman Price's internship opportunities, I quickly got to work and pushed to finish the application before the rapidly-approaching deadline. What happened next astonished me even more. With the drafts completed, I asked for help from Wake Tech's business department and was graced with whole-hearted assistance. From essay revision, to editing my cover letter and resume, the Wake Tech faculty displayed a level of kindness I did not know was possible in an academic setting. Not only that, but Dr. Scott personally offered to write me a letter of recommendation.
Through all of the support I gained through the application process, I was able to submit everything on time, and within a month, received notice that I was accepted to be an intern in Congressman Price's Washington, DC Office. Although I was happy to have earned such a great opportunity, it did have me question how I was going to afford moving out to complete the program. Yet again, Wake Tech came to my rescue. Not only did Dr. Scott give me an array of suits, shirts, ties, and pants, but Wake Tech even had me showcased in the local newspaper and on television to exemplify a community college student advancing to greater things. If that wasn't enough, Wake Tech gave me a generous stipend for food and transportation expenses, and lodging at a faculty member's parent's home that was close enough to DC for me to commute. There is no way I could have had the experience of interning for Congressman Price were it not for Wake Tech. What makes this story even more relative to the progress of the Latino community is that none of the individuals who helped me in this process even had a slight Hispanic connection, yet they went out of their way to assist me because they saw potential in me as a fellow Wake Tech community member.
Foresight for the NC Latino Community. The point of the matter is that North Carolina is developing into its own melting pot, filled with a variety of races and ethnicities, with a quickly-growing Latino community. Through recognizing similarities instead of differences, and encouraging cultural awareness, the people of this state are becoming more and more open to diversity and helping one another as fellow human beings. It is becoming less of a matter of whether someone is Latino or not, and more about who the individual is as an everyday member of society. And although there is still a long road ahead for the Latino community to obtain representation on par with majority groups, it is certainly on its way to developing a fully-included voice through all levels of scholastic, business, and political environments.