A Letter to my Freshman Self

Just over nine years ago, at the ripe age of 17, I made a decision – a decision that would guide many of the twists and turns my life has taken since then.

My admission letter said “Welcome Home” and I believed in all the promise that statement seemed to hold.

I am often found touting great things about the campus I called home for four years.

Proudly sporting “The Shirt” every Saturday in the fall. Standing behind our football team.

And more often, benefitting from the doors it opened for me.

However, those in my life are very much aware that I struggle with my alma mater. I love what it stands for but hate the lengths it will go to protect those things (e.g. a botched sexual assault investigation covered in the Hunting Ground – blog post to follow).

It prides itself on tradition.

But the problem with tradition is that is leaves certain groups of people out. “Traditionally” my alma mater (and most others) existed only to benefit White men. My alma mater only began admitting women in 1972. When I attend game watches, there is still an older demographic who are sure to let me know they attended in the “glory days” before I would have been allowed to even apply.

Notre Dame is not the easiest place for folks of color. That identity was one I had a hard time naming at that time. But through intentional reflection and conversations with those around me (thank you SAHE folks!), I have processed through much of my experience.

Apart from cheering on my teams in the fall or during March Madness, my engagement with Notre Dame is non-existent because I hold such resentment for a place that promised so much but didn’t deliver for me or those I surrounded myself with.

So, when a contest asking alums to write a letter to their Freshman selves was announced this past Spring semester, I thought about my lack of attachment and the processing I had done. I decided that it might be time to finally speak up and say something about my lackluster four years in South Bend. I quietly wrote a letter to myself, describing the difficulties and hope needed to persist. I told a single person about the endeavor, Kathy Sisneros at CSU. She had pushed me more that I would have liked at points BUT she played a large role in getting me to a place where I could talk about race and name my own and how it has shaped my own experiences, including those I had at Notre Dame. I had her read over the letter to challenge me once more as I finally hoped to tell my story with those who could change the trajectory of how future Domers experience life on campus.

Last month, I was dumbfounded to learn that my letter had been selected with 64 other alums to appear in a book that every incoming student will read this coming fall and for years to come.

I suppose before we get to the letter, I just want to acknowledge that my experience was far from perfect. And I doubt that it would be entirely different today. But the fact that Notre Dame has chosen to publish such a letter – and allow thousands to students access to it says something about the change the institution is at least trying to make. I work in student affairs because I want to make a difference in the lives of students and make higher education more accessible and rewarding for folks from underrepresented backgrounds. So, it really brings me joy to know that there are campuses out there trying to make change on an institutional level. Or are at least acknowledging the shortcomings of the past. We all have to start somewhere.

Okay, okay, here it is…

 

Dear Ashleigh,

Congratulations! You did it! While Frosh-O was a literal nightmare for your introverted self, this is still the place you’ve been dreaming about for a while.

However, you will soon realize you are not in LA anymore.

Your peers will begin to ask if you think you are here as the result of some affirmative action policy.

An instructor will be so surprised to find out that your last name originates in Mexico and he will poll the class to see “who can tell.”

A peer will publicly say undocumented people deserve to die if they arrive in an emergency room.

But I want you to know that you deserve to be here. You are no less worthy than they are. You are not operating at a deficit. Your voice matters and you should use it – use it to challenge others, to tell your story. These experiences will build resiliency and clarity of purpose. They will help you to embrace your identities in ways you haven’t discovered yet.

People will think you are not Brown enough but also not White enough. Regardless, you will find a group of people who love you because of your identities, not in spite of them. They will help you embrace who you are and stand by you as you learn more about your history through Latino Studies. Better yet, in the time you spend in McKenna, you will finally find professors who look like you and reflect a different experience.

As time passes, daily microaggressions will build up. Lean on your friends. They are having similar experiences and you do not have to face it alone. Find other students of color in your classes to exchange knowing glances with when something ludicrous happens. The silent camaraderie will get you through. These experiences will make you a better professional in the future as you work with students and try to relate to their lives.

It will be hard when those around you are taking weekend trips and going to exotic places for break, while you are just trying to make enough money to put food on the table. You will work countless campus jobs, and this is where you will meet some really great people. But also know Rector Funds can help with that class ring you’ll eye in your junior year. I wish I could tell you it won’t always be this way but Notre Dame is expensive and the decision to come here will impact you far after graduation. You are lucky enough to have a family who will do what they can to support you as you establish yourself. And, hopefully, one day, you will be able to pay them back. I have faith that will happen.

 Hate has its limitations. You will feel it but do not succumb to it. People are the sum of their experiences and yours just looks different from others. Focus on education, on being the outlier to their stereotypes and opening their minds in the process.

Hope is a better use of your energy. The presidential election of 2008 will bring hope for the country. In your personal life, find hope in the small things.   As you walk down South Quad, look up to that shinning Dome and remember the huge role Mary played in the faith of Abuelito and dad. Remember the tears in dad’s eyes when he saw Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica because he knew she would take care of you and she will, just remember to visit her occasionally.

There will be days when this seems like too much to handle – like this is not the place for you. But this will also be the place that makes you who you are. You will find your best friends here. You will find your passions here. You will find that dreams you have been chasing are not necessarily right for you. You will question everything. And in four years, you will look back and be so proud at everything you accomplished – so beyond prepared for everything the world might throw at you. And you will come to realize, you were meant to be here all along.

 All my love,

Your future self

 

Renteria, A. (2016). Dear Ashleigh. In J. Kang & I. Tembe (Eds.), A letter to my freshman self: Domers reflect on their undergraduate experience (pp. 41-43). Notre Dame, IN: Corby Publishing.

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