When I was little, my mom took my sister and me to a modeling agency. She, just like most parents, thought she had the world’s most beautiful children. When it was my turn to meet with the agent, I sat down and smiled. The agent responded by saying, “Oh, you are still in the ugly stage. Come back when that changes.” Apparently, the modeling agent didn’t think I was so pretty.
It sounds harsh now, but I laugh to myself when I think about it; maybe because of how ridiculous that comment was to say to a six year old; or maybe because the agent had no idea that my outer appearance did not reflect how I felt inside. In any case, this experience taught me about the resilience of inner beauty. Regardless of how others may view me, it is truly my inner beauty that counts.
As I reflect on my first year as a grad student/Assistant Resident Director, I remember straying away from the life lesson that I had learned as a child. I remember feeling not so beautiful. I felt lost, overwhelmed, and disingenuous. In order to cope with these feelings, I would journal frequently. Folks who know me could tell you that I always carry a journal. When I journal, an open dialogue spills onto the paper. I write in this format because it creates a space where my physical self and spiritual self connect. Today I will share that intimate space with all of you.
I thank the cosmos that last school year is over. For most of last year, I felt like someone was pushing me under water; and for the first time in months, I have emerged for a breath of air. Last year I tried so hard to be someone that other people admired. I remember observing the people who others looked up to, and strategically planning how I could be more like them. It required me to change the color of my skin, hide the texture of my hair, be a different gender, and double my age. This was an extremely tiring process, but one that I was willing to take to ensure my personal success. I began to feel this way during my first Division of Student Development In-Service Meeting. I was counting how many women of color I saw – there were five. How could it be that there are only five women of color in a division with more than 80 people? And how could it be that not a single one is in a top leadership position?
I felt scared. I wondered how successful I would be as a Puerto Rican woman. I questioned whether people could tell I was a woman of color, and began thinking of ways I could pass. Maybe I should straighten my curly hair, or maybe I shouldn’t wear “exotic” earrings. Should I continue to put the accent on the “a” in Velázquez? But then I stopped and questioned my feelings. Why am I feeling this way? Aren’t I proud to be a Latina? My mind was often clustered by these conflicting thoughts. Soon thereafter, my colleagues began to affirm my insecurities. A fellow grad told me I was hired because the department needed to diversify the staff. Another shared that I spoke English surprisingly well for a person from a Spanish speaking family. I began to feel angry; not at the people who released those micro aggressions, but at myself. I hadn’t done a good enough job hiding my differences, which meant I wasn’t going to be successful.
I began to have informative interviews with folks who I perceived to be admired, so that I could replicate their success story. I stopped engaging in programs about diversity, multiculturalism and social justice, because people expected that of me. Maybe it was because of the color my skin, or my knowledge base, or because I excel at that work. However, at the time I thought it was because I was being pigeon-holed into those positions.
I thought to myself “how many white folks do you see working in a diversity office?” So, I attempted to keep my passion for social justice a secret. In addition to my assistantship I took on a leadership position with a Women of Color initiative at my institution, but I chose not to share that with my colleagues. I tried to diminish my involvement to the outside world, in fear that people would find out that I’m actually very proud to be a woman of color. By the end of the year I had developed a professional identity so foreign to me that I felt like two different people. Until one day a mentor came along.
During second semester I received an email from one of my assistant directors, who is also a woman of color, asking me to list out everything I had been involved in regarding diversity and social justice at the institution. I read that email, and almost had a panic attack. Oh my gosh, did they find out? I’m going to lose my job! How do I respond? Why does she need to know? I called her and as my hands were sweating and my heart was pounding, I asked why she needed that list. And before she could answer I blurted out, “Am I in trouble?” She was quiet on the other end of the phone, and then said “Dav! Why would you be in trouble? I just want you to be acknowledged for the work that you do!” My heart dropped. She knew about my secret love for justice, and wanted to acknowledge me for it. My face felt warm, and my eyes began to water. I know, you are probably thinking how melodramatic this is, but for me it was life changing.
Since then I have realized that I have been guided to this place in my life for a reason. I am unique, I am beautiful, and I am strong, and all of my identities allow me to be all of those things. I have also realized that there will be folks who do not celebrate all aspects of who I am, but I remind myself that I am not working in student affairs for them. I am here for the students, and the gifts and talents I have to offer are distinctly different from anyone else. Nowadays, I am bringing Daviree to work and I can confidently say that she is the same Daviree regardless of the setting. So, if you are a graduate student or young professional I encourage you to be yourself. In fact, the field needs you to be yourself. True transformational education starts within. So, bring your true self to work, and be prepared for the transformation to being.