Finding Your Voice through Community

When I first saw the email, I didn’t know this organization existed. And this happens with many many things: shows, performances, and all that.

Well we are a little bit different because we’re technically not a recognized student organization, so we can’t really post or advertise on student websites, so if you search on the William & Mary website for us, you won’t really find anything because the school doesn’t recognize us. We’re currently in the process of getting recognized so that we can get school funding and get a table at Day for Admitted Students or Activities Fairs and things like that, but for right now not a ton of professors know about us, but we have a pretty big Facebook presence, so that’s how most students know about us.

Is it difficult to get recognized? Had you tried before?

Our previous leaders decided against it – they wanted to be separate. But now we are transitioning to wanting some sort of other recognition besides our Facebook page.

And what’s the goal, the aim, the ethos of the organization?

So our mission is to spread love and understanding, so through stories and interviews and pictures we try to show people that everyone matters, everyone’s story matters, everyone’s story not only matters but is meaningful to our whole story as a community, so just things like that. I have loved it. I’ve met amazing people through it, I’ve gotten to just sit down and chat with people I don’t think I would’ve chatted with otherwise. I love it.

And what things have you done?

So in addition to our interviews, we do a lot of projects. So we did one project last year where we handed out disposable cameras to random students on campus and had them pass on the camera to other random students on campus and at the end, once the disposable camera was out of film, we got it back and developed the pictures and just looked at the similarities or differences between what people decided to photograph. It was really interesting and very cool and we put up the pictures in a physical display in Sadler. So just small things like that, and this is probably our biggest project that we’ve done in a while to celebrate 100 years of women on this campus, so through a nomination process we chose 18 women – students, professors, faculty, and staff, 18 for 2018 – to interview and then in the next academic year around September, these pictures and interviews will be displayed in I believe the admissions office and maybe also in the Blow third floor area, and those will be up for quite awhile.

And how did the nominations happen?

We put out a Google form on a Facebook page to everyone, all of our followers. We have about 8,000 followers or so, so quite a large following. And we got a lot of nominations so we had to just parse through them all and we chose the 18. It was a long process to just choose the 18 but I think we chose well.

Well I’m very grateful for this and I’m looking forward to whatever you want to do. I have no problem with time but I don’t want to…I don’t know how much time you have.

Oh I have plenty of time, don’t worry! So this is kind of just open-ended and up to you, just whatever you want to discuss. I’m just here to ask follow-up questions. So I guess I’ll start by asking, how do you see yourself as an influential woman on this campus?

Well yes. In the end it’s what it’s really about, not really being influential or being aware of being influential because I don’t do things because I want to be influential, no. I just want to be close to people and to students and to colleagues also, and share what I can share. I mean it’s not that I have an agenda or anything. But it’s true that I have received thank you notes for many different things. So this is the last thing. I wrote a piece for Ladies of Alpha. They asked me to…if I wanted to write a little piece about how William and Mary had been good to me or something. Have you seen the piece?

I believe so, yes.

So I didn’t do it to make any kind of impact or anything because I think that I’m here so…I want to be here fully. So when I was writing it down I was like, “Well this is what I really want to say,” no? And then I told them when I sent them the email, you know, “this is really oversharing, so don’t publish it if you don’t want, but this is what I have to say.” So then I have gotten some cards saying, you know, “you don’t know how important it was for me to read this.” And then other students have told me in person that they sensed that others, because again we are complicated and very vulnerable and every person expresses himself or herself in a very different way, so I sense that others have also read it. So that’s one thing, for example, which is sort of a big thing. But then, I hope that if I influence people in any way, it’s about caring for others, you know? Because I can teach, I teach Spanish, I teach Spanish film, I teach feminist theory which is very dear to my heart – I really of course have an agenda with that, a very political agenda. But what I hope to leave is, you know, this person cares for me while we were sharing this space together. Because I want to care, and I do care. And I try to help the student in distress, for example, which is not easy because sometimes you are…I mean things are going on but you don’t know. So that’s what I would really like to leave people with, and of course I would love for people to be interested in Hispanic Studies, and do a major in Hispanic Studies. I think it’s very important also for this country, for the US in particular. Hispanic culture is key, so I think that both Anglo and Hispanic people to learn more, I think, in fact I really think, that we work in one of the most important fields because as you are saying, we are hopefully teaching people about the Hispanic culture so that they are really loving the Hispanic culture. These are Anglo students, like the one here Alex who has become to love Hispanic culture through her studies here. And she’s an American girl who’s going to work in the US. So all that is going to make it, again wherever she goes she’s going, to be an advocate for Hispanics and for understanding, no? So that also, of course. I’m glad that I work in this field. And I also assist a lot with the students. The other girl is the president of LASO. So I focus on a lot on community. So for example, we have taught for the first time this semester Spanish for [something] speakers. Amazing class, amazing students. And we are developing a website for the university: the Hispanic portal. So we have created content of all things Hispanic on campus so that everything Hispanic – The Latino Student Organization, Latinx in the Sciences, alumni, Salsa Club, Hispanic Williamsburg – will be on a website and a student who comes and wants to know, “oh what’s Hispanic on campus?” can have the information. But also it’s a way of bringing us together. We were just discussing what else to do, and again, she was saying you know, the example of doing what others groups do – Chinese or Filipino, no? So a day of celebration and showcase and food, etc. I think that’s key. I think that’s key. And I see myself in my department really pushing for that all the time. Really pushing for parties, piñatas, t-shirts. Yeah we didn’t have a t-shirt so some students designed it and we had a party to deliver the t-shirts. So I would say that what I want to do, also, is to create community wherever I go, and to promote the understanding that getting to know Hispanic culture in this country, ultimately of course, to work towards less injustice, no? So that would be one part. I haven’t prepared this so I’m just putting this together, no? That will be one big area. And the other one, and this is the first thing that I really told you because it’s the first thing that comes to mind is caring for people. I want to…again I was writing down “okay I’m gonna…”. I want to get some students at home that I haven’t seen for awhile. For me this is so important. Relationships are so important. Otherwise, why am I here? You know? And not only because I come from another country and I came here on my own, but it’s because it’s the most interesting thing about any experience, no? The people that you meet, the exchanges that you have.

[brief interruption by an admitted student asking questions]

So you would say that your main influences, I guess, are caring for others, showing that you care?

I think it is. I hope also, to have influenced some students in their…I mean it’s nice if someone tells you, “oh I did Hispanic studies because of you,” that would be very nice, but it’s not the first thing I’m going to tell you because it’s not really…you know, to care for others, of course, and to help students in any way possible, no? And so I’ve had a lot of students coming here, well not really lots, but students coming here with issues of depression and anxiety and I’ve gone through that myself very seriously, and being able to share that and to see that you provide a little comfort, because they also provide comfort to me, I don’t know, that’s one of the reasons that I’m here. Yes, comfort and support, but at the same time I also receive a lot because very early, when I meet a student, they stop being a student. The relationship changes. Not that I see students as…once they are not my students, for example, the ones that were here, I see them more like friends than students. Which is not that I want to be a mentor for everybody, no, I want to know what’s going on in your life and I’ll tell you also what’s going on in my life. So yeah, caring for others, building a relationship.

Yeah that’s amazing. I’m sure your students really appreciate having that relationship with you.

I used to stay that still no student has told me “oh don’t be so nice with me!” Because you know, among professors, especially in academia and higher education, you know, many people are interested in the academic part but not as…teaching is not a vocation, you know? I know that for me, it’s really a vocation. For some of my colleagues it’s always tricky to find out what would be the best relationship to have with a student, and they are scared of getting too close, for example, or being too spontaneous. I say, well, I get as close as I can, I get as spontaneous as I can. I hug them because I’m from Spain. And still nobody has told me, “don’t be so nice.” So why would that be a problem, you know? In high school it’s a problem because you need to keep your authority, but not here when everybody’s so respectful and polite. So I really have that approach, and again the students respond very well. Nobody responds badly to that, and then from that you develop relationships and that’s very important. I love it that in further semesters, students keep coming, in a different relationship. So we go and have a coffee or whatever. So for example, some of my closest students are in Sevilla in Spain, and some of my dearest students, and I’m going to Spain in May and I’m going to try and go see them. I don’t know, it’s a way of trying to express what my approach is to this, realizing that not everybody has that approach because I have also been in higher education as a student, and I mean, many professors wouldn’t like that and that’s okay, but certainly I see that we have a little bit of a different approach, maybe closer, maybe more personal, maybe, I don’t know. I also think that you bring to the classroom what you already have. So whatever my life is, is going to show in the classroom. I think that I also pursue that outside of the classroom with my colleagues, with staff.

So what brought you here? You mentioned you used to live in Spain and that you were a high school teacher?

Mhmm, I was a high school teacher in Spain. Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson for us, for my generation, we forget about his mistakes and we just adore Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. It’s true, it’s true. I studied English Literature, and then I had this fascination with the US, so Michael Jackson, and then American culture, and then New York City, and then literature, etc. etc. So I worked for eight years at a private high school in my town. It was a bilingual high school, so I was in touch with many colleagues from the US. And at one point I said, you know, I want to go to the states for different reasons. I hadn’t been able to travel to an English-speaking country even though I had studied English Literature. And I said, you know, the time is coming. And even though in Spain we are very close – everybody lives in the same time and families don’t really like that you want to go live abroad – I think that had been my discourse for so long, that nobody said, “no no no, don’t do it.” So then, again, I learned that I could come to the US, teach not in high school but in college, and then do a Master’s in Hispanic studies. So I applied to that, and I did my Master’s in Iowa, in Iowa City. Are you from Virginia?

No, I’m actually from Portland, Oregon, on the west coast.

Oh wow! From one of the coolest places, after Brooklyn, I must say.

Oh yeah!

Brooklyn is the coolest place on earth, and then maybe Portland. So yeah, so I was there for two years. I loved graduate school. I struggled a lot with life there. I said I want to study, I want to pursue a PhD. I hadn’t thought about it, but it has to be New York. New York, or I go back home. My professors said I should apply to other schools but I said no. It was so clear because you know, we have to trust ourselves, and sometimes we cannot but we have to learn to trust ourselves. And I’m glad I trusted myself. I knew it. Life agreed with me. So then I was accepted to schools in New York, both state and city university. Columbia didn’t want me, NYU didn’t want me – fine they lost a big asset. And I chose CUNY, City University of New York,  because their campus was in the city, and I wanted to be in the city, and I did my PhD. It took me ten years to finish the whole operation, the whole dissertation operation that I thought I would never finish. I had all sorts of crises, issues, all sorts of things. But I was in New York City. So life could be wrong but I was in New York City. That was an amazing thing too, you know? You think like “I don’t know what I want in life, but I know I want to be here, and I am here.” I have this relationship with the city. So I lived there, I consider myself a New Yorker. I hope to go back. But then when I was finishing my dissertation, you know we have to go to the job market and it’s of course it’s not that there’s going to be a job in New York for me. So I applied to many jobs all around the country, and they offered me a position here. I didn’t know anything about William & Mary, I didn’t know anything about Virginia. So I asked my professors, I said, “What shall I do?” I was finishing my dissertation, I hadn’t finished it. And they said, “No no no, you go. It’s a great school.” And I said, “What if I don’t finish the dissertation?” “No no no, you go.” So I came here, and I came here in January 2016. And yeah, it’s changed my life, really.

Would you say it’s been your relationships with students that has made coming here the most worthwhile?

The biggest change in my life has been what I wrote in the Ladies of Alpha. That was a lot for me. That was very very important and very painful and very awful, also, but it’s something that is a very important thing. I wasn’t planning on that. Life just gives you these things. I wasn’t planning on it at all and then it happened and it’s so strong and so traumatic, then going and telling my mother, you know, this person I’m in love with is not a man, it’s a woman. I mean, it’s not easy to say. But at the same time, it was very easy to say. And I’m much freer now. I’m much freer. I understand the world in a different way. That has been so important in my life, that has been key. And then the second thing for sure, has been the relationships with students and with my colleagues, the ones that have become friends. That’s really what, I hope, I can continue those relationships. That has been very very important. Then of course the university has allowed me to teach any course I want to explore things and that’s very good for your CV because once you leave graduate school, usually you have only taught Spanish Language, not literature, not film, and I could do that here. And then I have learned so many things in the professional arena. But really, yeah, it’s people. The people that I have encountered. What I have shared, very very intimate things that I have shared, again it was very painful, this whole process that I was telling you about. But at the same time, I had some students who were very close to me and they were also going through things. And another one, Caitlin, who was in Spain, her father died while she was in Spain, and there was such a big support. And I could share those things with them, and also with some friends here. But I could have these connections because life put us in similar places, no? And some of those who supported me most were students. I mean, two or three, no? But I really have a very, very close relationship with them. Yeah those people are hopefully with me forever. Hopefully. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something.

So if you could give advice to future women of William & Mary, what would you say?

What I would say, and what I maybe don’t say but do, is get involved in the community. That’s something I would say to any person, woman or man. You are here…William & Mary or anywhere else. This is where you are now because, you know, many of us are here temporarily and we know it. This is where you are, this is your life now. Get to know the community, the students and the students’ associations, go on trips that Swem organizes, go to other departments’ events, get to know…this is a system that is alive. Try to be a part of it so that you can receive and, of course, give. Then, you ask me, if one is a woman, and fortunately I haven’t experienced sexism. The chairs here have been women while I’ve been here. The program directors have been women. So it’s not that I have a special message for future women of William & Mary. If the future woman of William & Mary is a student, I would say to go and take gender studies classes. Go and take a course about feminism. You have never studied this because you don’t do this in high school. Explore that. Learn about that. Because we really need the education. So that’s what I would recommend to anyone. But if the person coming is an adult, a professional already, you know, I’m not going to tell her to do this, but if it’s a student, that’s what I would really recommend because it’s eye-opening. Some of the students have never heard about gender binary or the difference between gender and sex or so many things and they’re important. You do in life whatever you have to do, but I think it’s very very important. Thinking about women, I don’t know, what would you say now that you’re a senior and you’re leaving?

Oh man, that’s a tough question. I think I am a little bit opposite of you in that I am in the sciences, and so I have faced sexism in my field and it has been tough. So I think if I were talking to a student going into the sciences, I would tell them, “You gotta keep your head up, you are deserving of being here, even though sometimes it might not feel that way.” The sexism in the sciences, not particularly here but just in this country, is hard. So just feeling like you deserved your spot is something that is very important for women to know in the sciences, for sure. But I also definitely agree with you in getting involved with activities, organizations, clubs, departments. Just making your time here worthwhile because this is an amazing place. I’ve loved my time here.

So yes, of course, that’s a key thing and I know it, again in the end the person I speak to is so important. I know it theoretically of course, but it hasn’t been my experience and that’s why it’s not the first thing, but obviously, if you’re a woman in science, that’s key. You know what? In our classes, most of our students are women. In fact, I asked myself, “okay, what name do I have to give a course so that I can get the guys? I want the guys! I want the guys, the athletes. How am I going to bring them?” So I have to work on that, on advertising the courses. So when 23 are girls and only 2 or 3 are boys, even if they are shy, it’s not so noticeable. But obviously if I had one minute to think about it I would say, “raise your hand and speak, from day one, and raise your voice.” And if he’s uncomfortable, no problem. Only through uncomfortable situations do you grow. But please, take the opportunity because this is always the problem for women. As you say, “you belong here” or feeling the right that my voice deserves to be heard. What I have to say deserves to be said, to be told, to be listened to. That, of course, yes. But again, I would say to women and men, you know what I would really say to students? I would say, “get to know the people in your classroom!” I work as hard as I can on that, and I still see students who just go in and go out. Get to know who’s sitting next to you! That’s the most fascinating thing, with differences that you’re going to get from the classroom!

And that’s the thing that’s so special about college too, is that this school brings people from every state and other countries, just different backgrounds, different stories. Getting to know them is important and amazing and beautiful.

And share your talents! Help one another! I don’t know. And get to know your professor! Of course. Talk to your professor! Get to know him or her! If he doesn’t want to have any conversation, fine, but maybe he or she wants that. Build relationships. Not only because we think about networking for the future internship, no, no, no, because that’s the way that you fulfill your potential.

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