I never thought I would be here writing this graduation column, attempting to reflect on my educational life at UC Berkeley. Yet, here I am.
There are various reasons I say this — one is simply attending an institution where success is handed to you only if you’re rich and white, while the rest of us have to work tirelessly just to be seen and heard. Another is being thrown into toxic competition in the classroom, resulting in imposter syndrome rather than a deserved welcome. This list is never-ending and unsettling.
The gruesome challenges of my youth, the struggle to be alive, weighed me throughout my life. This, combined with the way prestigious universities run, did not prepare me for life here.
But here I am, about to obtain a B.A. in English with a minor in journalism, leaving with just as many questions as I started with. This time, a little more formed, with pieces of the answers here and there floating in my mind.
There’s so much more to say, many pieces of advice I could give. But I think the most important thing to do, right when commencement is only a week away, is to reflect on my time at Berkeley, really look at the growth I’ve made, the people I’ve met, the accomplishments I’ve achieved.
I’m at a whole different point than I was four years ago. How do I feel about it? Am I proud? Do I wish I could change anything?
My reflection came in the form of a letter to my 16-year-old self. For you, it may be different, but here’s mine if you need some inspiration:
Dear 16-year-old Gisselle,
I know you’re not going to believe me when I say this, but you decided to go to UC Berkeley instead of UCLA, and it was the best decision of your life (despite the consequences of missing your siblings dearly). You’re also not going to believe that you’re about to graduate with a B.A. in English with a minor in journalism.
You somehow did this all on your own, without any financial support from your “parents” or any support from actual blood relatives. It was difficult and yet you persevered, fiercely, even when you felt like you were never good enough to be here. You financially supported yourself by working 45 hours a week your freshman year while simultaneously being a full-time student, building a social life and growing involved in clubs and organizations. This grind, it didn’t stop, although you did learn to take care of yourself. You gained healthy weight, you changed your last name to reflect who you truly are, you changed your gender to nonbinary, you embraced and grew into your Latinx and queer identites. You fell in love with someone you met in Iowa and have your own home and three cat children you adore. You also met some pretty cool people, your now best friends, a family who showers you with love (while building stronger connections with your friends from back home). You also accomplished so much in Berkeley: You are graduating debt-free, have your name as the author/photographer in renowned publications, got paid to write poetry and have a poetry reading in the same room where you decided to attend Berkeley, hold leadership positions for multiple clubs and organizations, the list goes on. Gisselle, you did it and I know what you’re thinking: Did you deserve it? Well, spoiler, the answer will always be yes.
P.S., Your future’s so bright! You want to do so many incredible things for the people around you, but don’t forget that you need to put yourself first too, that you matter, that you deserve to be alive even after all the abuse and trauma. I promise it gets better, as cliché as that sounds.
love, 21-year-old Gisselle.