Onward - A Keynote Speech

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

This is a transcript of my keynote speech delivered at  the SUNY New Paltz Educational Opportunity Program's Biannual Conference on May 5th, 2018.

Every Educational Opportunity Program student remembers their first day of orientation. I sure do! It was one of the first times in my life that I was truly on my own, with only a handful of people that I knew from high school. Being from New York City meant that when I walked I looked straight ahead, and my face spoke before I did saying, “Don’t talk to me, I’m going somewhere.”

In fact, this New York mentality was so ingrained within me that when someone held the door for me and smiled, I thought they were weird and questioned their motives. I was a painfully shy girl, with little need to associate myself with people I didn’t know, let alone adults. On the very first day of orientation, at Hasbrouck Dining Hall towards the back next to the ice cream, Jessica Purcell found me, sat next to me, and attempted to start a conversation.

In my naïve mind, I thought if I just gave her the bare minimum and answered her questions she would go away. If you know Jessica, you know I was wrong. Jessica did not go away. Instead, she sat next to me until I smiled. It was at that moment that I knew she would never give up on me, and she has not to this day. She supported me, most memorably, through receiving my first ever “D” in my last semester at New Paltz, and continued to support me through graduation, graduate school, having a child, and career transitions to name a few. Therefore, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by saying thank you to my advisor Ms. Jessica Purcell for being with me every step of the way.

With that said, good afternoon! I am equally thrilled and honored to be standing here today because I know you’ll agree with me when I say that making the trip back to New Paltz ironically always feels like I’m coming home. Thank you to Antonio Bonilla and Rita Celariste for having me today and leading this program fearlessly and relentlessly. In addition, I’d like to thank the advisors who adopted me along the way like Clare Kelly-Barra, Christine Featherston, and Ivelisse Tuttle. Lastly, thank you to the advisors and staff I haven’t had the chance to get to know as well, yet, but whom I know are doing the important work of making dreams reality and supporting students through college persistence.

I am the daughter of two Dominican immigrants, raised in Washington Heights where roughly 35% of the population lives below the poverty line. Amongst the surrounding neighborhoods of Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville, East Harlem, and Central Harlem, only 51% of students in low income high schools pursue post-secondary enrollment. Despite, these statistics, I am a proud product of the Educational Opportunity Program here at New Paltz, alumna of Columbia University, former College Counselor at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School, and current Assistant Director of Talent Search at Columbia University’s Double Discovery Center. Every opportunity I’ve seized has allowed me the chance to further the mission I am most passionate about: creating more opportunities for students of color.

In the spring of 2013, Jessica, in her lovingly intrusive way, practically forced me to apply for the EOP Summer Liaison position; a job with the objective of essentially making 125 incoming freshmen feel welcomed and ready to come back for the Fall semester. I tell my students, two of which are sitting in the audience, that it is this job that ignited my fire for college access. In July of 2013, I, along with Maliqua Solomon, welcomed 125 faces that looked like mine, whose family backgrounds were similar to mine, and whose eyes lit up when I told them “Yo soy Dominicana de la capital!” In a predominantly white institution, I was a familiar face, with a familiar thick Dominican accent. Although I was honored and happy to be the security blanket for these freshmen, I was also disheartened that there were only 125 of them. Thus, I made college access my goal.

Today we are gathered here to celebrate 50 years of an idea turned into a movement. At a time where the futures of Black and Brown children felt uncertain, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. filled people with fear and despair, Arthur O. Eve continued the fight for equity by expanding the Educational Opportunity Program, which by 1970 reached over 2,500 students and 30 campuses. Today, EOP can be found on 47 campuses and has graduated over 69,000 scholars. We honor Mr. Eve’s accomplishments and acknowledge the foundation he has built to allow students like me, with immigrant parents, the ability to not only pursue higher education, but also succeed in higher education. We now stand on that foundation, reaching heights that no person of color, in the time of MLK, thought would be possible. I would argue, however, that it is our job to be present in the present, and push onward to the future so that this foundation, built by Mr. Eve, can continue to be built upon and grow to reach many more lives that require his vision.

The closing to all of my emails is, “Onward”. Sometimes it fits well. Other times, like recently when I sent my resignation letter, it doesn’t work so well, but initially, Onward was intended to honor my path to adulthood; to honor the many decisions that had to take place, before my time, so that I could be here. To honor the sacrifices of my parent’s parents, and to honor the sacrifices of my own parents. I used Onward as a reminder that I was 20-years-old and pregnant when I began my first graduate semester at Columbia University, and that if I could finish an eight-page paper while in labor, that I could really achieve anything my mind could conceive. I simply had to push Onward.

On Wednesday, March 14th, 2018 at approximately 10 AM, the meaning of my signature closing changed forever. The high school at which I was employed participated in the National Walk Out to stand with the students of Parkland High School. I was conflicted about the response to the Parkland shooting for quite some time. On one hand, I sympathized with the families, students, and teachers of Parkland for their losses, the loss of lives and innocence. On the other hand, I questioned if the same incident were to happen with my Black and Brown children in Brooklyn, would it result in a national call for solidarity? Has it ever before?

Our students walked out of their classrooms, some with pride, others with a little bit of confusion, and we all gathered in the school’s small hallway on the fourth floor. Students shared their thoughts, spoken word pieces, and poems. It was truly inspiring to see our nation’s future activists taking their first steps towards actualization. It was at this moment of solidarity with the rest of country, that we learned one of our juniors, Loyed Big Daddy Drain, lost his life to the very reason we walked out of our classrooms on that day, gun violence.

Loyed was a sweet boy, remembered by all his peers as loving, charismatic, and by me - sleepy. He was a part of my SUNY New Paltz advisory group, which on November 17th, 2017, set short-term goals for the rest of their quarter, and long-term goals for their lives. Loyed’s long-term goal was to go to college. Here I have with me Loyed’s last Collegiate Prep assignment - his preliminary college list. My college counselor heart is happy to report that his college list is realistic for a 2.55 GPA, with a healthy mix of reach, target and likely schools, all in the SUNY system for affordability. Giving himself just a little bit of room to dream, the very last school on Loyed’s college list is Princeton University.

Now, after Loyed’s death, my Onward closing is no longer about me and my path, but instead about Loyed. I think about the dreams he held that can no longer be realized. I think about the vast amount of potential held by students of color that is never realized, whether because of a fate similar to  Loyed’s  or because the systematic structures in place do not allow for our student’s dreams to flourish.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, that someone like Arthur O. Eve could dream a dream that allowed a student like me the opportunity to dream and help students like Loyed dream. We celebrate foundations because they allow us the option to move Onward, to have the mere ability to dream and to reach for those dreams regardless of the obstacles ahead. Onward is not easy. It requires courage, resilience, and patience. It requires us to see the world around us as ever-changing, with infinite room for improvement.

The SUNY New Paltz Educational Opportunity Program embodies Onward rather effortlessly because a major part of pushing Onward is having a community around you that allows you to believe that it is possible. I can look at Antonio Bonilla and Rita Celariste, and know that I too can lead a dynamic program that changes the lives of hundreds of students every single day. I can look at Jessica Purcell and know that I too can be a mentor to students and remain soft in a world that attempts to harden us. I can look to Clare Kelly-Barra and know that I too can see the world; all I have to do is study abroad. I can look to Christine Featherston and know that I too can walk through the world and my professional career with an overwhelming zest for life. I can look to Ivelisse Tuttle and know that I too can be a mother, do it really well, and still do what I love without compromising.

We are surrounded by mentors and visionaries; people who believe in our futures before we believe them for ourselves. It is our job as beneficiaries of this program to provide others with that same ability to believe. We leave our communities with the goal of returning back home and making them better than when we found them, so today in the pursuit of Onward, I encourage you to try these three things: find a mentor, find a mentee and find your Loyed.

1. Find a mentor. Find someone whom you admire and ask them to guide you. We are sorely mistaken when we believe success is a one-person job. After all, we are a reflection of the company we keep, or as my Abuelita says, “Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres" which translates into “Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are.” Find a mentor.  2. Find a mentee. I encourage you to remain open-minded and accept the request of someone who wants to be guided by you. Be authentically and unapologetically yourself because it is true, you never know who is watching you, who is learning from you, and who is inspired by your very existence. I would add that, as stated by Halleemah Nash former iMentor director in Chicago, mentoring is not saving, is not replacing, is not about you, is not a license to devalue communities, and is not solely in the science. For more on that, please watch the Ted Talk “The Real Magic of Mentoring”. Find a mentee. 3. Find your Loyed. I encourage you to find your Loyed, find your Onward, find the cause or person that you care about the most, and lend a hand because in a world that is actively working to push against us - Onward is our act of resistance. Thank you so much. 

In loving memory of Loyed Big Daddy Drain