Steve Flores ‘11
Title: Transitioning from Field Organizer back to Arts Envoy Coordinator/ Co Founder of One World Hip Hop
The ride to Denison University was a long one. Sixteen hours to be exact. Born and raised in the city of Boston, I knew nothing but the city. And here I was driving up the curvy hill and seeing Denison for the first time. I was in shock. My parents were in shock. This is what I would call home for the next four years. But before I move forward let me take a step back.
I remember coming home one evening in early December, ecstatic knowing that I was a recipient of the Posse Scholarship to Denison University. Me? A Full Tuition Scholarship? Am I dreaming? So many questions crossed my mind. I was filled with emotion. And what better gift to give to my parents, both of whom have sacrificed so much to get me to this point in my life than a scholarship to college. As a huge part of our daily tradition we all had dinner together. It was my favorite, arroz con pollo guisado y tostones. Does my mom know because this plate is only served to me on special occasions? I remember cleaning up and my heart beginning to race. It is now or never. “Mom, Dad…. I got a full scholarship to college!” Their reaction was priceless. My dad, a tall and round Puerto Rican and my mom, a short and petite Ecuadorian, cried, shouted and started to thank God. “Gracias a Dios, Gracias a Dios!” I mean, I consider myself a tough guy, but to see my parents cry definitely made this moment memorable and I won’t lie, I shed a tear or two. They asked “Where to? Boston University?” That’s when the experience took a sharp right turn. My brother and I were first generation college students. My brother just got accepted into Boston University on a full scholarship and the expectation was that I would follow in his footsteps. However, I always considered myself different and unique and I wanted to go explore outside of Boston. I told them “Denison University. It’s in Ohio.” They responded “Ohio?” Their face went from ecstatic to apprehensive. They just realized the baby of the house was leaving the nest, and flying far away.
My mom didn’t talk to me for much of the ride to Denison. It wasn’t because she was mad, although I still felt she was lingering some emotions from the abrupt decision to leave Boston; it was more so that her baby was leaving. We passed many cows and cornfields and finally got to the little town of Granville, Ohio. I remember driving up the hill and seeing how perfect the grass was cut, how the signs posted around the campus were aligned so well, and the air so was so clean and crisp. After unloading and setting up my room, it was time to say goodbye. Once again, many tears were shed. It is absolutely normal and encouraged. You are seventeen; you just made a very adult decision to go somewhere sixteen hours away, with no family around to support you in case you fell. Time to “grow up.”
My experience as a first generation student at Denison was a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences. I remember feeling the pressure from all sides as I was meant to be some exemplary pioneer for my friends and family. I remember walking around A-Quad and not seeing someone who looked like to me. I remember hearing Taylor Swift and U2 playing from the windows of dorms rather than Marc Anthony or Selena. I remember seeing pizza and pasta in the dining halls every day instead of arroz y gandules. Where were my platanos y tostones? This was trouble.
The first few months felt surreal, troublesome, and problematic. Where am I? Why do I feel like everyone is staring at me? Why do I feel out of place? Do I belong? Does someone truly understand me? If you have had any of these questions come up, we both share something similar; the environment we were in was foreign. It didn’t belong. I didn’t belong. At least for now, the pieces of the puzzle weren’t forming any shape or picture. I felt stuck. What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I talk to? I remember feeling as though the class knew material about a particular book or topic that I was unaware of. “Did I miss a day of class? Did they get an email with additional readings that I didn’t?” Yes, I felt defeated at times. The only time I stood out and felt “myself” was when they had parties on the 3rd floor of Slayter because I knew that if there was anything I could do that felt remotely normal was dance. I remember that is where I could shine. I remember the dance floor feeling so comfortable, inviting, warm, and open. Seeing so many strangers come together and sharing the space in a way that felt communal was the start to understanding where and how I would find my place at Denison University.
I felt as though so many of the obstacles that I faced circled around understanding that my journey should not be focused on others. It should be my exploration and evolution of self. There was so much pressure from my family to pursue a degree that would transition me into a high paying career. There was so much pressure to represent the Latinx community, as the demographics on campus were bleak compared to other ethnicities represented on campus. I felt I had to constantly justify myself and prove myself across many disciplines on campus. Wrong! Throw that all out the window. Focus on YOU! I remembered after several months of observing the campus, the classes, intramurals, and even the dining halls, that for me, and no one else, the Latinx voice and presence on campus was missing. If I could not latch onto something on campus that made me feel connected to who I was, then I was going to create it. There was a gap, and I wanted to fill it. Not for anyone else, but for myself, and if it benefitted others, then great.
I remember recognizing that there were three main issues I wanted to tackle that I felt were constantly challenging me to feel a certain way about my place at Denison. Academics, Extracurricular Activities, and Social Life. That pretty much sums up your college experience but I remember constantly feeling out of place in one or all three of these aspects. Whether it was feeling like I was behind in the material, lack of groups to join and be a part of that reflected my roots, or not going to parties that played some salsa and dancehall, I knew I had some work to do. There was a rigor about the academia on campus that was unsettling. I felt I was constantly behind, having to read the same chapter six, seven, eight times just to be able to answer a question in class if I was called on. Is this normal? I compared Denison to a buffet once before a few years back. Denison truly has all the resources and mentors you can possibly have, but it is up to you to go around and choose what you want. By being proactive about what is offered at Denison, you will soon realize that your challenges and obstacles will become opportunities to grow and shine.
I remember walking into La Fuerza Latina my first year and being surrounded by seven other peers who were interested in the Latinx culture and community. Yes, you read that correctly. Only seven. Most of them were the Latinx members of the Denison community coming together. I knew this organization had a lot to do in order to represent that voices that are not traditionally heard.
I remembered signing up for intramural sand volleyball, never playing volleyball a day in my life beforehand, and realizing how much fun I had with a group of strangers who loved throwing their bodies around and diving for balls just to win and have their photo posted on the board.
I remember wanting to be a part of the Greek Community and after phenomenal talks with so many different organizations not finding the one organization that stood out to me.
I remember going to Slayter and having to ask the DJ to play certain songs that I knew. Maybe no one else knew them, but songs I wanted to get down to on the dance floor. I remember people asking me how I could shake my hips the way I did, or how to dance salsa and bachata.
I remember feeling frustrated in some of my Religion classes because the way in which my peers were interpreting the Bible or some material we were reading were not reflective of how I grew up learning them.
These are a few examples of what I felt needed my attention, energy and voice, and what I felt so attracted to be a part of. These examples required my energy because as I stated before, there was a gap and these were the issues I needed to fill. Fast forward four years, I remember Dr. Laurel Kennedy walking into Burton Morgan and seeing 80+ community members attend La Fuerza Latina’s first meeting of the year, I remember competing against Kent State University as part of the newly created Men’s Club Volleyball Team, I remember crossing and being embraced by many members of the Greek Community as I wore my first Greek sweater; bringing the first Latino Fraternity onto campus. I remember having Salsa lessons and classes throughout the years and seeing the turnout of so many of my peers coming and getting down on the dance floor, and I remember using my background in Catholicism to explore and compare the common grounds with Hinduism. These vast arrays of examples were significant to my experience and evolution as a first gen student at Denison. You see so much of what we consider “success” is just about the vantage point in which you see it from. Many will believe that we have an uphill battle to face when in reality it is what makes us unique and different that we must use to our advantage. Trust me, in this journey there is a lot more support than what meets the eye, but it is your responsibility to explore your environment and find out what resources are provided to better and enhance your experience.
Ultimately my ability to stand up, acknowledge that I am different, and allow my differences as a platform to stand out is what made my time at Denison University some of the best years of my life. I remember being asked during my first year at Denison “How will I leave my mark?” and come graduation, seeing so many of my professors and peers coming up to my parents to hug them, and speak about the relationships we have had over the years. This was reflective of the mark that I had made on campus. I walked across the stage, grabbed my diploma and proceeded to hug my family. “Mom, Dad. This is for you, thank you!” The best gift they have received thus far (my Masters is on its way).
Here are a few bullet points of advice I would share with other first generation students at Denison that I wished someone had told me when I started.
Own your experience; don’t let the experience own you. – Your time at Denison is precious and valuable. There will be many all nighters, cold nights, and weekends where you will ask yourself “Can this be over!?” Trust me. Four years seems like a long time but it’s not. It will go by fast. Be conscious of your time and maximize it. Don’t let four years go by and you walk away with just a degree. Walk away with memories, experiences, sleepless nights, nights where you cry and laugh at the same time, friends who turn into family and knowing that in four years, in whatever capacity you felt called to, that you left your mark at Denison, be it big or small.
Use Your RESOURCES - I’m not going to sugar coat it for you, my academic experience in High School did not prepare me for the academic rigor I initially endured at Denison. That academic gap can be filled using your resources. Professors have office hours, use them! Do not be shy. Yes, eventually your guilty conscious will want to buy them a coffee, or an apple, or something for having to constantly see you, but have no shame in going to see them. They are there for you and they will truly welcome you with open arms. The writing center is another great resource to use for papers. Having peers and professionals look at your work before presenting it is priceless. There are so many resources at your disposal that it would be a shame to fall behind for being afraid to use it. Have no fear! It’s free! Use it.
Be Uncomfortable. That is where you will grow – I think it’s safe to say that we all tend to retreat to people, places, and things that make us feel comfortable, warm, and safe. I think this is absolutely necessary. And I challenge you to be uncomfortable. This is where you will grow because without allowing yourself to be stretched you will never understand what you are capable of handling and accomplishing. I remember failing my first Religion exam and feeling so incompetent and I took that feeling and challenged myself to continue taking Religion classes all the way through to my last semester of my undergraduate experience—a few credits shy of a second major; I didn’t allow that one setback to control my experience.
Pick one Up, Drop one Off – Explore, Explore, Explore. I challenge you each year, or if you’re very ambitious, each semester to explore the depths of this University, be it academics, extra-curricular activities, Granville, Columbus, volunteering, or social settings that you’re not use to. I challenge you to pick up a new activity or club each year and put on hold one that you might not be giving your all to. This allows room to explore and not be constrained or restricted to roam freely.
Do this for you! Pursue your passion and not the price – I’ve said this before, but follow what makes you happy. As a first generation student, we have so much pressure to rise up to the goals and dreams our parents may have for us. Put that on pause. I know it sounds extremely resistant but the more you can focus on what makes you happy the more you will truly devote your time, energy, and all nighters to a cause or subject that you want to leave your mark on.
I am…….. - in an environment where all eyes seem to be on what makes us different, stand up tall and proud on what makes you unique. Own it, embrace it, love it, cherish it, and be proud of it. I challenge you to wake up every morning and look yourself in the mirror. Preferably after you splash your face with some water. Look in the mirror and give yourself 5 positive affirmations to start your day. You do not realize the positive impact you have in your day-to-day mindset. I would empower myself saying, I am confident, I am tough, I am loved, I am tired, and I am handsome with this new haircut. A few short empowering affirmations can make the difference in your day.
As a first gen student I challenge you all to take control over what you do have control over. You will face many barriers on campus and you should see those as golden gate opportunities to further implement yourself onto campus and become infused with the culture and the experience for yourself and others. As much as you can learn about the environment, others can learn and grow from your impact on campus. Your experience at Denison is a multi-dimensional street. There is no right or wrong way to go. You will fall many times, and you will become resilient and get back up. You will find moments to shine and moments to help others shine. Your “label” of being a first gen student will become infused with your identity but it will be a platform in which you will use to get one step closer to your dreams. YES, I am a first generation college student AND I am……..Be unapologetically you. Growth is inevitable on all sides and the journey to leave your mark will be a beautiful one.
In presenting yourself to others, either appear as you are, or be as you appear. - Rumi