Self-discovery is a daily gift ready to be opened. Life’s valuable lessons, like love, patience, understanding, confidence, humility and knowledge, are found inside. What happens with this gift is entirely up to the individual.
Diana Velazquez, who graduates this month from the University of San Diego with an English degree and Latin American Studies minor, has taken self-discovery to wonderful heights. When she talks about her time at USD, her personal growth through community service, student organizations, study abroad and more, not only provides insight, but also mindfulness of the world around her.
“Looking back at my academic education, I think about what it was that allowed me to ‘make it’ and not others,” said Velazquez, a native of Banning, Calif. “I was identified as a gifted student at a young age, in second grade. I would go before school started and take extra classes. Being identified as gifted changed my academic experience, but it also made me realize that this privilege might have oppressed those who weren’t identified.”
She graduated from Beaumont High School, living in Banning’s Latino community with immigrant parents who did not attend college. Velazquez has two siblings: an older sister who was the first to attend and graduate from college — California State University, San Bernardino — and a younger brother who is a high school junior. Velazquez will be the first in her family to attend graduate school. The USD McNair Scholar begins a Latin American Studies master’s program at Indiana University in August.
Velazquez’s first glimpse of her college future happened when she visited USD as a participant in Upward Bound, a federally funded TRIO pre-college preparatory program serving high school students from low-income families and those whose parents don’t have bachelor’s degrees.
“We came for a tour of San Diego and they brought us by USD,” she said. “The campus was so beautiful. What first attracted me was seeing signs that said ‘Compassion,’ flags and the church (The Immaculata).”
It made an initial impression, but it wasn’t her original plan. She expected to follow in her sister’s footsteps at a state school. Still, though, she applied and received a financial aid package that made USD an affordable option. It awakened her to new possibilities, but brought with it challenges that most college newcomers face: finding an identity and overcoming self-doubt.
“It was a culture shock coming here,” she said. “I grew up in a Latino community, grew up in the church with other immigrant families. I suddenly I felt isolated. It was the first time I was faced with the fact that it’s different. I was different. I’d heard the term ‘minority’ before, but I’d never identified as that. I was always the privileged, gifted student. I came here and now I was the outsider.”
Doubt quickly ensued. “I’d never gone to a private school before. It made me wonder if I was really prepared or if the subjects I was having trouble with, even though I was trying hard, if it was me or if the education that I’d grown up with wasn’t as top-notch.”
What Velazquez really needed was reinforcement from those she knew best. “My mom told me: ‘You deserve to be there, you’ve worked very hard and don’t let anything take this opportunity away from you.’ My younger brother said, ‘Don’t be stupid! You’d better stay there!’ Frankly, I really needed that kind of honesty. After that, everything got better. I found my niche.”
Classes and time spent with USD professors Carlton Floyd (English), Gail Perez (English), Judith Liu (Sociology) and Evelyn Diaz Cruz (Theatre Arts) and with USD’s TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) and McNair Scholar staff members provided support and encouraged her development.
• She organized an English as a Second Language one-on-one tutoring program for Montgomery Middle School students. “It’s been one of the best things I’ve done for myself,” she said. “Being with the students reminds me of my parents and family. It makes me understand more about my parents’ circumstances learning English. The students themselves, they’re middle school kids and they’ve got a range of emotions, but they’re so real with you.”
• Velazquez directed a 15-minute play within USD’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass celebration at The Immaculata. “It connects me to my family and the message that God sides with those who are oppressed in society is powerful. I think it’s survived for so many years because people can identify with Juan Diego’s struggles and the hope that Our Lady of Guadalupe brings to us and to him.”
• She’s been an SSS mentor for two years, working with incoming freshman female students to ease their adjustment to college. Velazquez credits her attendance at the USD Women’s Center Empower Leadership Retreat as a participant and as a student facilitator. “It’s been a powerful learning experience. I’ve learned that at USD it’s a sisterhood, that women are sources of inspiration and hope. It’s not a competition. Storytelling is powerful. Everyone has a story, every woman is different, but there are common threads of struggles we experience.”
• Velazquez played acoustic guitar and sang Spanish songs at multiple student and community events at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. She played violin in USD’s Mariachi Ensemble program. “Music just touches people,” she said. “Some of us don’t like to get preached to, but when someone sings and it touches us, that’s a great way to transmit a message.” She sings in Spanish, not English, to heighten others’ discovery. “I want to show them how beautiful Spanish is. It’s the language of the working class in California. I want to share that beauty (English speakers) might not always hear.”
• Velazquez has done study abroad twice, including last spring in Havana, Cuba. It brought issues of privilege and identity to the forefront. “What shocked me most is how privileged I was there. It was me who had money. I budgeted $20 a week for lunches and snacks. That was so much money. The minimum wage in Cuba is $16 a month.”
Again, each aspect of her student experience focuses on self-discovery. Velazquez knows there’s more to learn, but it’s a daily process.
“I was very quiet when I arrived, believing that what I had to say wasn’t too important. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to take pride in who you are, where you come from and know that what you have to say is important. I have a voice now and I want to develop it further.”
— Ryan T. Blystone