Varsity Tutors Scholarship Winner

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Sylvia Jimenez
Brunswick, ME
June 2019

Who matters? - Varsity Tutors Scholarship Essay

In the Fall of 2017, I signed up for a course with a title that caught my eye. It had the words "women" and "writers" and Caribbean" in it; if you had told me a few years before that I'd get to take such a class one day, I would have not believed it. Yet here I was, on the first day, not knowing what to expect as my professor walked into the classroom and greeted us in her Colombian Spanish accent. She had a sweetness to her eyes, a warmth to her smile, and a confidence about her presence that demanded acknowledgement. Every word she spoke to us felt perfectly chosen, and I often found myself staring at her wide-eyed, watching her lips move as she formed every syllable. Desperately, I attempted to absorb as much of her wisdom as my senses would allow. I always felt an odd sense of urgency to learn in her presence. Thinking back, I realize I was terrified at the idea of this being my only chance to understand something that would impact my life forever. At that point I didn’t know how much I would rely on her example to guide me in my worst moment.
One month into the semester, on September 20th, 2017, I felt the ground be swept from under my feet. What was but another day in the life for most of my peers was also the day after Hurricane María left millions in the dark and without water, and thousands without shelter or access to medical care.
I left my room that morning after scouring the web for information that —I later accepted— just wasn’t available to the rest of the world. My home, was now a missing piece of the puzzle in our interconnected globe. Never had I come this close to knowing what it felt like to be alone. I couldn’t reach my family or friends, none of the people I had spent my life with. As I made my way through campus I realized no one had the slightest clue of the storm that raged in my head. This observation made me grow frantic. Naively, I had hoped that people would know and understand.
Just as I was about to go into full-fledged panic, I received a message. It was my professor. I felt a wave of relief wash over me when I read her words. She understood that I felt broken, and may have been the only one to know. Shy as I am, I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with her before, but I wound up in her office that day, sweater soiled with fresh tears and tripping over my every word trying to make sense of the whirlwind in my head. She didn’t judge or question me, she only listened and offered a tender, motherly gaze. Her most reassuring words were in acknowledgement of my distress.
We spoke of the burden of being a token minority, seeing as I was the only Puerto Rican at my institution who still permanently resided on the island. Only a handful of students on campus shared my heritage. I was experiencing pressures that I could not mentally shake off. But I had never considered myself a leader; I struggled with some basic things: raising my hand in class, openly disagreeing, and reaching out to anyone for support. What was I to do in a moment like this where I was the sole voice of an entire culture at my institution?
Although I had seen students take a stand on global issues many times before, campus was quiet then. For the next few days, I considered that my only choice might be to take the leading steps myself. It was a terrifying idea, not knowing if I had what it took to Make a Difference, or even what that meant.
For the next few months, I was driven by a force unknown to me before.In doing so, I forced myself to enter a space of leadership where I feared I didn’t belong and had no say, a space where I had felt invisible. This was part of my commitment to my college, as I was brought into such a community because someone believed I had much to offer. It was an opportunity to engage with my campus community and the town of Brunswick, and build a sturdy bridge to my home.
I began to share the ideas that I brought back to campus with me and delegate tasks to my peers.Over the course of a month, we planned to collaborate with several student organizations on campus and two local businesses that agreed to host fundraisers. We even organized an educational event with professors.
I felt proud to be putting my home on the map of visibility alongside my peers. We paved the way for future students to connect with the real Puerto Rico underneath the postcard-perfect image.
I owe my courage to my professor’s support and example as a female leader. Her wisdom and kindness taught me that I had what it took to speak out and that my voice mattered. My hope is that I created more space at my institution —in our culture, our curriculum, and the minds of the people in our community. Thank you, professor, for reminding me of my worth as a fellow Caribbean woman.