Half A Life Later, I Am Ready To Stand Out

 November 27, 2002. That was the day I graduated High School. The school year in Chile goes from March to November. December 5th, I spent the day saying good bye to friends and family, and that night, I boarded Lan Chile Flight 530 to New York. I don't remember crying that day, I just remember being excited. My mom was flying with me, so maybe that helped. We landed in JFK on December 6, very early in the morning. Headed over to Rye to my cousin's house, and a few days later, I moved into one of Adelphi's dorms and started their ESL program, which I was scheduled to attend for a month before starting my Undergraduate studies at Adelphi that January. I moved into the dorm like any college student, said good bye to my mom, and got started. Back then, smartphones weren't a thing, and neither were laptops with built-in cameras, so if I wanted to talk to family and friends, I had to type an obscenely long calling card number and wait for the person on the other side of the line to pick up. I only got a cellphone after begging my cousin to get me one; a purple LG flip phone that allowed texting for an exorbitant cost per message. 

I lived the common college experience. School newspaper, Student Government, Greek Life, Honors College, while double majoring in Anthropology and Criminal Justice. And while I was blessed that my mom had offered to pay for college (honestly, she might as well own my firstborn for that one at this point), I worked three jobs: Peer Assistant Leader, Public Safety, and Web Services. During summers, I'd stay in the dorms and work for Web Services as well as Orientation Leader for two years. Apparently, I have a tendency to overexert myself and take on multiple responsibilities at a time, while still managing to breathe. I spent many a nights awake studying or writing papers (or working events for Public Safety until 3am on weekends). I managed to maintain a social life, make lifelong friendships and invaluable memories.

What happened next I wrote about already. I tried (and failed) Law School, got my Masters in Social Work, got licensed in NYS, worked as a Social Worker, got married, had kids, and you know the rest.

I write this not because I feel like reminiscing my college years. I write this, because today marks 18 years since I landed at JFK. That is literally half of my life. I have spent half of my life in this country; I spent some of the most crucial years of my life here, those that set the stage for my adult life. 18 years studying, working, paying taxes (which, by the way, I won't see as part of my Social Security because they were paid while on a student visa.... but I digress).

Looking back, college, work, marriage, kids and all the rest isn't even the tip of the iceberg of what I went through. Behind it all, I spent time working on my accent; trying to fit in and live the "life" that one is expected to live while living here. I spent those years trying to fit in while praying I wouldn't stand out. Why? because leaving your family behind is hard enough on its own, so better to fit in so as to avoid any potential conflict (spoiler alert: one does not simply wish drama away while in college, or even after).

It wasn't until the dumpster fire that this year has been that I have FINALLY found a balance between who I am expected to be, and who I want to be. "Want" being the keyword here, because when you are an immigrant, naturalized or not, you have to live to certain standards. Take the most recent election, for example: your expected view of social issues is determined by that very moment you set foot in American soil, thats the moment that defines you. Funny how that works... you may have spent (in my case) half of your life in this country, but I will always be defined by the moment I set foot in US soil, because that is who people see: the girl from Chile without an accent who came to the US for college and stayed and made a life. 

The day I got my citizenship (February 24th, 2014), I finally cried. It was a complicated mix of emotions between knowing that I was leaving part of me behind, but also, unrelenting joy at the idea that I would finally, FINALLY, have a voice. All those years of being part of society, and it took a civics test to give me the rights that others around me took for granted. A civics test that, I assure you, many of my American friends would fail (and even some candidates for Justice of the Supreme Court).

And while that day in December will always be an important milestone in my life, it is not who I want to be anymore. Who I want to be is someone that fights for equity; someone that recognizes the differences between people and fights for the same chances I was given. Someone who strives to create spaces where trying to "erase your accent in order to fit in" isn't a requirement, but something to be discouraged. I don't want to fit in, I want to disrupt; to make enough noise so that those like me can live more than just the expected college experience. I want to encourage my children to disrupt expectations, to shatter ceilings, and remind them that if they walk through fire, their skin might hurt, but it will heal stronger than before. 

I have spent half of my life here fitting in. I am ready to spend the next 18 years of my life standing out. 


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