The sun was setting on the Santa Monica shore, and the long shadows of my fellow beachgoers stretched into the Pacific Ocean. I watched as the waves lapped against our feet, the wind slapped our chests, the seagulls soared above our heads. An inimitable energy arose from our bodies in motion, all of us covered in the same California sand and basking in the same sunlight. “That’s it!” I exclaimed. I pointed to the sun and turned to my friend Max, both of us cognizant we had reached the end of the road like the travelers along the old Route 66 had before us.
The moment took “oceanic feeling” to another level. I was a high school teacher who had been accepted into UCLA’s English PhD program, and for months I had felt caught in a maelstrom without a proper ship. I had graduated from Princeton University filled with the spirit of “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” but soon after, the election of Donald Trump changed my course.
Months after the 2016 Presidential election, I had witnessed the negative impacts on my community: Several of my students unenrolled from the school district and never came back, select community leaders began to embrace the President’s racist talking points about our own people, and activists began to organize protests against the deluge of destructive policies emerging from Washington D.C.
Despite the energy and action, I did not know what to do. I knew I could not continue to do what I had always done: Expand my college access programming from a summer institute to this high school course. It felt almost silly to focus on college access when headline after headline wrought news that would detrimentally impact lives along the border, from ending DACA to increasing militarization. Opening social media soon became synonymous with doom-scrolling over the next Cabinet appointment, the next Tweet, the next undoing of an Obama-era policy.
Attending protests and meetings did not assuage my growing dread that people I cared about were going to be harmed and there was little we could do about it. Slowly, I assessed what I did have in my control. And then, one fateful day in December 2016, I received the Princeton Alumni Weekly in the mail. I read the feature on Professors Cornel West and Robert P. George, two intellectual powerhouses on the political left and right respectively, in conversation. Their mutual respect for one another invigorated their discussion on their political differences and the role of universities in fostering diverse perspectives. The following quotes resonated with me:
Cornel West: “Education is very much about the shaking of whatever convictions we have. You know what Nietzsche says: It’s not just the courage of having your convictions, it’s a matter of mustering the courage to attack your convictions, too. That doesn’t mean that you have to give them up in the end, but they need to be seriously scrutinized. So in that sense, safe space for me means respect for perspective, and then robust Socratic energy…”
Robert P. George: “In fact, the gift that a properly functioning college or university confers upon its students — and faculty — is the possibility of leading a truly examined life. If we at Princeton are doing our jobs well, our students will throughout their lives be interrogators of their own convictions…”
While their conversation was centered on intellectual diversity, I derived another layer of meaning from it. More so than actively learning from other perspectives, which I believed had done quite well as an undergraduate student, I took from this conversation the need to reframe the purpose of my Princeton education. Stepping outside my comfort zone meant not only understanding how Donald Trump was elected, but also questioning my own convictions and sharpening them through a more intentional educational journey.
Attending Princeton University had changed my life and equipped me with the tools to understand myself and serve my community. However, it did not prepare me for a Donald Trump presidency. At the time, I believed attending graduate school would change my life again and, with the intention of gaining practical knowledge and skills to organize my community, enable me to make systemic change.
Dear reader, you might be asking: How does incubating oneself in graduate school prepare one to make systemic change? In my mind, colleges and universities offer a unique space to grow, experiment, reflect, and act. In my teaching job, I did not have the capacity to expand like I had as an undergraduate student. I was dedicated to uplifting my students, and feeling unprepared to do so in a meaningful way, I left to the West Coast to learn about “the real world." Doing so within a university setting made the most sense to me at the time because of how Princeton had transformed my life.
Whereas my true education at Princeton took place in dining halls as I learned from my peers, I learned the most in graduate school by actively participating in Los Angeles life. I organized in my labor union for academic student employees. I advocated for a new neighborhood council that would represent the UCLA campus community. I joined electoral groups like Indivisible and volunteered on numerous political campaigns. Moreover, I pursued my adolescent dream of “making it in Hollywood” by submitting screenplay manuscripts and attending auditions for short films.
Over the course of my PhD program, I learned how to apply my critical reading, writing, and thinking skills to the “real world.” I learned how to navigate political spaces, enact tangible change within institutions like a labor union or a nonprofit organization, and intersect my Humanities education with other interdisciplinary fields like public policy and business. As I shifted from student to instructor to researcher in my many roles in my PhD program, I also grew in innumerable communities outside of UCLA.
I do not believe the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP) would have become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit without my attending UCLA. Beyond gaining the practical business and organizational skills, I learned how systems worked in Los Angeles. We strengthened our labor union by expanding its membership and building community, not kowtowing to the University. We addressed the needs of our campus community by creating a new neighborhood council from the ground-up. We got out the vote both within and without political campaigns. I learned how to exert power by building systems independent of institutional forces. By ensuring CSLAP operated independently of school districts, we could create our own pillar of the community and enact more meaningful changes.
I also do not believe I would have run for public office without my exposure to political campaigns, electoral organizing, and a diverse range of activist spaces in Los Angeles. In short, I learned what would work along the Texas-Mexico border and what would not. For example, operating as a political outsider in the sprawling Los Angeles County is quite natural, almost inevitable given the grand diversity of its many municipalities. Even Los Angeles natives would confide in me their anxiety over what it meant “to be a native Angeleno.” We along the border are suspicious of outsiders, as the 2022 midterm election taught me. We fronterizos prefer to trust our own people and, more practically, run our own political campaigns.
Perhaps most importantly during this time period, I had the privilege of viewing the Texas-Mexico border from the outside looking in. I was a fronterizo away from the border, witnessing how my home was changing as a result of the forces that changed public policy and projected public safety narratives. As the 2018 midterms neared, the “caravan” emerged in the public consciousness followed by U.S. Army soldiers and concertina wire along the border. It shocked me to witness the power of these political fantasies; they were reshaping reality.
At the same time, my reality was being reshaped by academia. If Princeton changed how I learned what I learned, then UCLA forced me to question why I learned what I learned. This included questioning the role of the Humanities in my day-to-day work and the very purpose of my English PhD program.
Standing on that Santa Monica shore, I did not expect that I would soon lose my affinity for scholarly research and the glossy veneer I projected onto “the academy.” Little did I know that reaching the end of this old road meant reversing onto a new path. Little did I realize that as much as I would gain from my time at UCLA, I would also lose just as much.
More on that in my next blog post.