Commencement 2008 Address: Vanessa Vidal Castellanos '08

Story posted May 24, 2008

A Continuous Journey Before & After Bowdoin
By Vanessa Vidal Castellanos '08
Goodwin Commencement Prize Winner
May 24, 2008

Good Morning Class of 2008, President Mills, Members of the College and Guests,

Vanessa Castellanos200.jpg
Vanessa Vidal Castellanos '08

As I get closer and closer to the outside world, also known as the working-and-paying-bills world, I realize that my major anxieties and fears do not concern having a job after graduation; rather, they concern the challenges in dealing with my two conflicting cultures and what they mean to my identity, my future career, and my familia. The internal struggle between my North American and Latin American cultures has always impacted me, yet I naively thought it was all over when I got to Bowdoin. At that time, I was sure of who I was, and where I came from, but I was not so sure of where I wanted to go. On this, I would work on during my time at Bowdoin. I was embarking on my journey to success; I was pursuing my dream of going to an out-of-state college and my familia had finally accepted it, or so I thought.

Growing up, the University of Southern California, also known as USC, was just eight blocks away from my home, and I was a member of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative Academy. In that academy, I worked for six years for an undergraduate scholarship. While the majority of my peers used this scholarship for their undergraduate years, the scholarships could be deferred to graduate work. It would not cover all of it, but it would cover at least the first two years of graduate school.

Although USC is a great school, I began to dream of going to an out-of-state college. I had seen it happen on T.V. and in movies like "Real Women Have Curves;" but I always thought it was impossible because I needed money. However, during my senior year in high school I became part of the One Voice Scholars Program, a program that helps inner-city students go out-of-state for college. It is through this program that I found Bowdoin at the other side of the country. Nevertheless, my familia knew very little about the details of my participation in the program and even less about my serious intention to leave Los Angeles.

A week before leaving for my pre-orientation trip, mypapi and I were driving in the crowded streets of South Central L.A. in his beige Toyota Corolla when we had our first talk about Bowdoin. It was then that I realized that my familia never thought I was serious about going away. I had mailed in all ten college applications to out-of-state colleges without ever mentioning it to them. Fearing that Bowdoin would not accept me, and afraid that he'd say "no" and prevent me from going, I informed him of my decision as late as possible. But the conversation was not pleasant. I vividly remember my papi asking, "But mija, why don't you just go to USC?" He told me I was crazy and questioned how I'd survive far from home. I explained to my father that going away had been my dream for years and I wanted, deeply wanted, to gain the educational opportunities available at Bowdoin.

The first time I developed this idea of leaving California for college was when I befriended the only white student at my high school. We became best friends and spent most of our time after school together. One day, while she and her mom taught me how to bake those delicious, mouth-melting chocolate chip cookies, her mother asked about college. I remember thinking, "Please don't make me answer, please don't." I was afraid of embarrassing myself because I hadn't really thought about it. I had accepted the fact that I'd probably go to USC since I had already completed half of the six years of the USC Academy. My friend, on the other hand, talked glamorously about NYU, her dream school. She fueled my desire to go to the East Coast for college. That was the first time a peer of mine expressed any desire not to go to USC, and instead hoped to leave California for college.

When I told my papi of Bowdoin's acceptance, I had to justify thoroughly my decision for Bowdoin over USC. I described how I'd be able to use the USC scholarship for graduate work, so it wouldn't go to waste. I'm not sure he understood all the details of my explanation, but he concluded that in the end, it was my decision. He said that if that's what I wanted to do and it would make me happy, he'd be happy as well and support my decision. At that moment, I actually felt he was being sincere about how he felt about my goals and aspirations for college.

I will never regret choosing Bowdoin over USC. I would not have enjoyed the same opportunities that I have received here like going to Quebec for a weekend or to France for spring break to immerse myself in a francophone community, or doing research in Martinique or community service in South America, and I definitely would not have played rugby because it's completely an east coast sport. I am not going to lie about my experience at Bowdoin and say it was all easy and all fun. It was definitely challenging academically, culturally and financially.

However, the person I was four years ago and the person standing before you now has learned greatly from those challenges, opportunities and mistakes made along the way. I've grown greatly from the intellectual midnight conversations with my friends on a range of topics from religion to race and politics. I was constantly catching up to be at the same academic level of the rest of my peers, searching for ESL assistance or going to the Writing Center to fix my awkward sentences and force my analytical skills further. Through juggling with five work-study jobs and a five-course load, I definitely improved my time management and organizational skills. Even during the darkest nights, when I painfully questioned my being at the right place, I was able to find the support and encouragement from my first-year roommates and their parents, my friends, my professors, my advisors, my counselors and my host parents. Today, I thank them all for making my four years at Bowdoin an unforgettable experience and the best opportunity of my life thus far.

Overall, I learned that the journey to success can seem pretty close to impossible, but one can rise to the occasion one time after the other and defeat the odds. And it is that willpower and determination that I acquired at Bowdoin that has helped me all the way, and I know they will continue to be the factors of my future achievements.

Now as I search for the next step into the world out there I question what I am really searching for. Coming from a Latin American family where the familia is what we live for, I wonder if this job search, like my search for a college far from home, is once again selfish. Part of me wants to continue pursuing my dreams to become a unique individual as my North American culture tells me to be. If I go to France or Latin America to be an English teaching assistant, that would still be further away than Maine. Even if I only go as far as Mexico, I would not be returning home. That would be devastating to the other part of me that simple yearns to be with my familia, be part of my little nephews' education, see them grow up, and simply be there for the good and rough times.

Again it was my papi who convinced me to reflect on what it is I want to do after Bowdoin. When I arrived in Los Angeles after studying abroad in France last December, I vividly remember my drive with my papi to the taquería. It was routine, every four months at the end of each semester I would come home and go directly to eat tacos. Yet this time it was different. After more than three years, my papi finally shared his true sentiments about my leaving home. Yes, of course, part of his dilemma is his uncontrollable fear of airplanes — he hates it when I get on "those machines." But his biggest concern is the familia not being together. "Pobres, pero juntos" was what he told me then, which literally translates to "poor, but together." I don't think he knows this, but those three words ripped me apart. I finally felt the burden that I had created not only for my papi, but also my mami. I understood each and every tear my mami shed every time I left. She even stopped coming to the airport to see me off, preferring to say good-bye at home, where she said it was easier to let go.

Today, I have decided that the differences between my two cultures will not stop me from attaining my dreams of working abroad, helping my inner-city community, and being close to home. I have been perseverant up till now, and I do not plan to stop here. After all the knowledge and experience that I have attained at Bowdoin, I cannot simply go back and forget the rest of my goals. At the same time, I now fully understand that part of my happiness is keeping my familia in mind. Leaving Bowdoin with those two ideas set and clear in my mind, I will now commence another journey to further explore and embrace my hybrid culture in terms of embarking on a professional career in public policy and maintaining the closest ties with my familia.

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