To the ones who shaped me

Cal in Color

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Since I was little, I was constantly reminded to focus on school, to stay in school, to do good in school; it was always school, school and more school. My parents reminded me as often as they could, “La educación es el camino al éxito,” meaning, “Education is the path to success.” As a child of immigrants, I remember these words echoing in my head every day, giving me a strong sense of responsibility to keep my head on straight and focus on being academically successful. I felt a great deal of responsibility to not disappoint my parents nor let them down. 

Luckily, I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, so I enjoyed school as well. In class and at home, I was curious and would drown the adults around me with questions, taking in all of the ideas and motivations that I’d develop with the answers that they had for me. And still, one thing I remember feeling like I needed was a role model who could guide me in the right direction and endow me with the necessary resources and expertise to reach my goals.

Although I was always so appreciative of my parents’ support for my educational pursuits, I needed someone who had experience in college in order to make me feel as though it was absolutely 100% possible for me to one day graduate from a university and make it out of the working class with a successful career.

It wasn’t until my mom signed me up for a summer program, Oakland Peace Camp, that I met young adults in college who were working to make an impact on the Oakland youth. These young adults were my crew leaders and instructors at OPC, and I got to learn more about them through the poetry and music production electives that I had chosen, as well as in crew meetings. As we became more acquainted with each other, it was inspiring to know that these young adults who looked like me, came from similar upbringings and were also from Oakland had managed to accomplish so much. In this community we built, they spoke to me about college, what it was like to leave their hometown for the first time and about their visions to inspire young students such as myself.

For the first time in my life, I felt as though I could put myself in their shoes; I felt like I could be them one day. At OPC, we were shown the importance of building and having a community in order to learn from one another. I learned that knowledge is more powerful when it is shared and not kept to oneself. With knowledge comes the ability to inform and inspire others.

OPC reminded me that I wasn’t the only one with a billion burdens on my back and that, even with weight to carry on my shoulders, I could still prevail. As a 14-year-old, I had already learned that it was important to be a role model for young people because sometimes that’s all a student needs: someone who they can relate to.

OPC inspired me so much that I signed up for the next year and the year after that — and then the next as well. I was at OPC for three years, and for my last year there in 2016, I was part of the crew lead team. At this point in my life, I was a sophomore in high school and heavily thinking about my future as a college student. This year felt more impactful than the others because I felt like I had the right questions to ask about college this time. I met Oscar and Jessica who attended UC Davis, Jose Luis who attended CSU East Bay, Lina who was a UC Berkeley alumni, among others. These crew leaders and coordinators helped me not only with the questions that I had about college but also to believe in myself, to believe that one day I could be a UC Berkeley alumni as well.

Since I was a kid, UC Berkeley has always been my first choice. So when I met Lina, I was so infatuated with her and what she had done so far. Lina attended the same charter school as I did and graduated from UC Berkeley. She was a program coordinator at OPC and was great at working with children and students of all ages. The kids loved her and so did the crew leaders. She was always down to talk and have a conversation about anything I had questions about, and I always appreciated her for that. I looked up to her, and I still do to this day. 

My participation in OPC didn’t end there. I continued to get involved with Oakland Leaf, the organization that hosted OPC, and worked with a mentor named Matt at Ascend school, right near the Fruitvale BART station, and at Castlemont High School. Matt was an organizer for the Love Cultivating Schoolyards program. LCS consisted of gardening and planting fruits and vegetables, teaching students about ecology and how to take care of the Earth and plants.

Looking back, I was more involved with my community than I thought I was, and my inspiration to be so involved stemmed from my participation in OPC back in 2014. I feel like since I had a group of mentors and peers who I could connect with, I was able to find my own path and figure myself out. I was able to find a sense of direction among my confusing years as a preteen. I’m thankful for Oakland Peace Camp and everyone I met because of it, and I won’t ever stop giving credit to the people who helped me grow into the person I am today.

Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected]