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What I Lost and Found in Los Angeles

It was supposed to be another long run in Los Angeles. It was a slow Sunday, and the sun was setting behind me as I reversed from Santa Monica to Westwood. Dashing past empty high-rises and crossing lonely lanes, I moved against the rhythm of the sprawling city. After reaching the 405 Highway underpass, I could see the crosswalk where I would soon be struck. Lining up right before the ramp entrance onto the 405, these white marks would one day prove I had the right-of-way. The car failed to slow, and I jumped onto the windshield quickly enough to avoid death.

The crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard leading onto the 405 Highway
The crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard leading onto the 405 Highway

My recovery was swift. Three weeks of wearing a back brace did not deter me from returning to teach my undergraduate writing course and continuing my research on the Federal Writer’s Project. Every day, I marveled at how my body recovered from this 30 MPH collision, which the doctors at Ronald Reagan Hospital initially thought would prevent me from ever running again. Soon enough I fell into the rhythm of the fall quarter, and I returned to my usual day-to-day at UCLA. Internally, I felt uneasy. If I had been searching for a sign that I was not in the right place at the right time, then I had been hit with it.

Prior to my accident, my feelings of ennui at UCLA already had been festering. It was late 2019, and with the Presidential election already well underway, I felt I was on the outside-looking-in. My motive for attending graduate school following the 2016 election emerged from a desire to learn new skills, develop dimensions I did not know exist within me, and pursue the life of the mind with more intentionality than I had as an undergraduate at Princeton University. In doing so, I imagined I would be in a position to enact meaningful change in my community, especially following the election of Donald Trump.

Unconsciously, I must have believed that attending a graduate program in Los Angeles was not the proper path for me to achieve my goals. But I distinctly remember the moment I realized it.

After I had picked myself off the road, I realized I was not breathing. I knew I could, but my body was too shocked to follow my commands. It’s during moments like these that one feels the paradox of life leaving their body coupled with an intense focus on their body. The will to breathe trumps anything else, and when I finally inhaled, I felt time expand before me. In that moment, I realized I had more than a few seconds left in my life. At the same time, I also realized I would never know how much longer I had left.

It was with this uncertainty I emerged from the hospital remembering the final lines of Jack London’s credo I had recited at my high school graduation: “I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Prior to my accident, I did not believe I had wasted my time at UCLA. I had gained research, teaching, business, legal, civic, political, and policy knowledge I could gain nowhere else. Four months prior to my accident, I had incorporated my college access program as a nonprofit organization in Texas and entered our first contract. I was surrounded by a supportive community, and I had foreseen us graduating together with our doctorates at the end of a long road.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Los Angeles and the winter quarter was cut short in March 2020, I thought I was returning home to Pharr, Texas for an extended spring break. It turned out to be permanent. I would return to Los Angeles once more later that month to pack up my apartment and escape from the city in the dead of night, refraining from touching surfaces or my face. I would teach my favorite and most memorable course, Service Learning in the Digital Age, virtually to students I would never meet in person. I would obtain my master’s degree by passing my verbal exam over Zoom, my professors on my laptop screen and Black Lives Matter protests on my television screen.

UCLA Service Learning in the Digital Age
The Wordpress website hosting all my students' blogs on their service learning projects.

I would burnout as I took on full-time nonprofit work, determined to change lives during this crisis period while also writing my dissertation. I would struggle to prove the viability of my research to professors, who seemed unaware of the absurdity of scrutinizing Melville’s “you cannot sit motionless in the heart of these perils” while the President remained hospitalized with COVID-19. I would continue to submit fellowship applications and receive funding for research that fell on deaf ears. I would emerge from the miasma of the pandemic disillusioned with my professors who seemed to change their views on my dissertation chapters every other month. I would feel the weight of “all but dissertation” as the years passed and no amount of maneuvering within this graduate program yielded results.

In 2022, I would run for State Board of Education and lose. It was then I took the time to reflect on my post-pandemic life. For years, I had strived to live up to the Princeton informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.” Clearly, I was accomplishing my service without my dissertation. My nonprofit literally saved lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. My teaching, not my research, uplifted my UCLA students, many of whom changed lives through their service learning projects and other lessons learned across my courses. My soon-to-be-published books on the Texas-Mexico border and South Texas Chicano Movement would contribute more to our country’s arts and culture than my dissertation ever would.

Although it had taken me years to accept, I knew every day I continued to remain in my graduate program after my accident was another day prolonged. I was in search of more time, feeling lost in the ever-quickening pace we find ourselves stuck in as we stumble in the rhythm of our lives. I had failed to “use my time” following my accident, and I had allowed any insights from those few breathless moments to go to waste. Soon, I began reflecting on another key sentence from Jack London’s credo: “The function of man is to live, not to exist.”

During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt most alive when I wrote The River Runs and El Curso de la Raza, when I spearheaded programming to support students to and through college, and when I ran a political campaign focused on closing equity gaps in our K-12 education system. I did not feel alive while rewriting dissertation chapters, preparing for committee meetings and job market lectures, and navigating department politics.

This past summer, I quit my PhD program. With these dissertation hours suddenly returned to me, I couldn't help but remember standing on Wilshire Boulevard, blood on my back, and reveling in the fact that I had more time to be alive. I finally understood what it meant to “use my time.” I intend to use it.

Email message from former UCLA student
An email from a former creative writing student in February 2020

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