The Authentic Self

by Allison Ryan '05

“Colombia is always part of my personality,” says Alejandra Velez, proudly. Moving to Washington State at age 10 changed a lot in her life, but, as she explains, “being an American citizen doesn’t mean I have to lose my culture or change who I am.”

In her Seattle community, Alejandra felt acutely and immediately that she was different. Her appearance, her language, and her culture distinguished her from her neighbors and classmates: she was the only Latina in her high K-12 school.”The only people I got along with were the teachers,” she reveals. In such “seclusion,” she says, “you focus on your studies.”

The highlight of her high-school years was a trip to France, which led to what she hopes will be a a lifelong friendship: Alejandra and her host sister in Nantes continue to visit one another nearly every year. “One of the most important ways to learn is from the people,” she says.”To become close with someone is the best way to learn about their culture.” Her overseas experiences have instilled a love of the French language and culture.

After three years studying international relations, Alejandra decided that she had “something to hold onto,” and added a second major in French studies. She graduated as a dual major with honors this May, with a thesis titled La Loi Sur La Laicite du 17 Mars 2004: L’Islam et la Republique. When she arrived at Scripps, Alejandra was interested in what she calls “the women’s curriculum” and excited about living near the Latina population of Los Angeles. She saw an opportunity to learn about who she was and about other women like her. “You need to feel good about who you are and what you do,” she says, something she admits she didn’t understand before coming to Scripps.

“My frame of mind when I came here was, ‘I’m going to fit in,'” she says.That semester was more difficult than she expected: she and her roommate found little to talk about, and she wished Scripps had a stronger Latina community. “It’s hard to relate to someone who grew up in a different environment,” she explains. Because of all the long-distance calls to her best friends in Colombia, her first phone bill was astronomical.

But Scripps classes—especially the Core and courses in race and women’s studies—helped. “I learned why I was feeling different from everyone else,” she says. “I wasn’t able to put that into words in high school, but now I understand. If I don’t fit, I don’t fit. I don’t change myself.” This realization motivated Alejandra to join Teach for America, a nationwide program that matches recent college graduates with the schools most in need of enthusiastic new teachers. She will spend the next two years teaching bilingual education at a school in Los Angeles, where she hopes to help her students understand that “fitting in” is not as important as appreciating their own strengths, and to see the advantages of their unique position as Latinas/os, living between cultures. As she says, “I think coming from another culture allows me to think about things from a different perspective.”

Teaching is a new idea for Alejandra; service is not. In the summer before her first year at Scripps, she volunteered at a hospital in Colombia, where she helped young patients with their Spanish and math in addition to physical therapy. Because of that experience, she decided that she needed to support communities in need, perhaps by becoming a doctor and returning to Columbia. “The bottom line was I wanted to work with people who really needed help.”

It’s that commitment to community support that has motivated Alejandra’s change in plans. Rather than applying to medical school, Alejandra is committed to making a difference as a teacher. She plans to earn a Ph.D. in Spanish with a minor in French and teach one or both languages. She hopes to model for her students that “Yes, you can make it,” and that their bilingualism is an asset, not a cause for embarrassment.

Whatever language she uses, it’s a sure bet that it will be the authentic Alejandra speaking.