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Studying in South Africa and learning who I am

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I was born in Moca, a small city in the Dominican Republic, and today I am a 21-year-old junior at Mercy College, in New Jersey.  Thanks to the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship, I studied In South Africa last summer, and it was a transformational experience for me. For the very first time, I learned about myself, who I am as a person. Here is my story:  

When I was five, my father left to get a job in the United States, packing boxes at an Oreos factory in New York City.  One of my earliest memories is being under the guava trees, saying goodbye to my father.  Every day, he called me and told me about metal bridges that float over the water and white frozen water that fell from the sky and looked like cotton candy. Once a month, we would get care packages with Oreos in them.  I would read my favorite book, The Giving Tree, and eat Oreos.

When I was six, my mother, brother and I joined my father in New York City, moving into the back room of a relative’s apartment on West 174th Street in Washington Heights, just north of Harlem. I was so happy when I saw The Giving Tree in my classroom.  A month later, we moved across the Hudson River to Union City, New Jersey, and lived on an air mattress in another relative’s home. We had 3,000 kids in my graduating class at Union City High School and a daycare for teen mothers. 

I felt a very special responsibility to my family to make our immigration to the United States a success story. Straight As, National Honor Society, honor roll. When I went to Cape Town, South Africa, in the summer of 2018, as a Frederick Douglass Global Fellow, I was free of the expectations — and pressure — that I had internalized within myself. All of my life, I have been translating for my parents, acting as the middleman if they needed to ask for time off with their boss at work or negotiate the other intricacies of life in America.

Before South Africa, I had never before been so tuned into myself. I went hiking. I sat and talked for hours with the other Fellows. It felt so much like a time not long before when I had tried skydiving. In South Africa, I felt as if I was flying. Never before had I felt so free.

One day, we sat in a circle and answered the question, “What is your prologue?”

I realized I didn’t know who I was. I was always the idea of a perfect daughter. I was just lost in a sea of abyss. Being away, I was able to find myself and find my voice. I wasn’t speaking for someone else. I wasn’t translating someone else’s thoughts. I was speaking for just me. I learned how to become a personal leader to myself. And I realized that I am my ancestor’s wildest dream. I also realized there is so much that I can do. I can imagine anything for myself.

When I had gone skydiving in 2016, I realized there are moments when we are flying but our feet are still on the ground. That’s what it felt like for me as a Frederick Douglass Global Fellow in Cape Town, South Africa.

Think about where you stand right now.

What if I told you that you could fly?

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