The Land of Opportunities

by P. Cesar De Los Santos | 11/21/00 6:00am

Seeking a better future, I came to the United States -- or, "The Land of Opportunities" as I usually call it -- one rainy Monday on May 6, 1991. Ever since I could remember, my childhood dream was to live in the U.S. I had heard great stories about this "enchanted land," its abundance of economic opportunities and its wonderful people. I guess it didn't take me long to realize that those stories were not entirely true. After just a few days I experienced a "taste" of the true American way. My first year of junior high school was a rude awakening.

As soon as I arrived, I was enrolled in the local junior high school. There I had a lot of problems, to say the least. I experienced discrimination first-hand for the first time in my life. The fact that I did not know any English made it even worse. The kids would insult me with a wide variety of classic curse phrases. Out of a lack of understanding, I would respond with "Thank you," which was one of the few things I knew how to say. Outside the walls of the school building I still was harassed. Incidents would occur even on the school bus. The students would blame me for everything because they knew I could not defend myself from their accusations. I was not alone in this situation -- some of my classmates went through similar ordeals. They were also recent Hispanic immigrants. For instance, the gym teachers once failed all of us with a big red "55" because we used to wrestle instead of play basketball. But the reason we didn't play was because the other students would not allow us to participate in their basketball games. The teacher knew this, but he simply didn't care. He was not the only teacher to partake in these unfair grading practices.

Another problem was my lack of understanding of the American culture, to say the least. I was literally culture shocked by what I saw in the classrooms. I had been raised with strict discipline and had always considered my teachers as second parents, so all of this was new to me. That school was a "hell" on earth. I mean, you only had to look at someone, straight in the eyes and they would come up to you and say "I'll get you after school," or "What are you looking at?" Actions always came before words. Due to this fact, I was involved in various fights throughout my junior high school career and did some "serious" butt kicking in order to gain some respect. But it all came at a cost -- I lost the privilege to participate in the breakfast, lunch and gym programs.

The students were bad, but some of the faculty were even worse. They were solely responsible for nurturing the immigrant-hostile environment. They knew all the troublemakers and everything that was happening, yet they never did a single thing about it. Added to that is the fact that although we, the bilingual students, used to take the same exact courses as the mainstream kids, our efforts were always ignored.

I thought I had reached the point of no return and was utterly disillusioned with the American Dream. But amidst those trials and tribulations I realized one day that I had to fight back. With the help of God, my family (especially my mother), teachers who exemplified their professions letter by letter (they were talented, efficient, accomplished, creative, helpful, effective, and respectful at all times) and friends who cared and were always with me every step of the way, I began my own odyssey. I started working harder than ever and managed to get excellent grades in school and successfully complete the requirements for graduation.

After graduation, I enrolled at DeWitt Clinton high school. At Clinton, I had a normal life once again. Not only did I have the opportunity to partake in various teams and clubs, but among the 4,500 students who attended Clinton I also met wonderful people from around the world with whom I had common experiences. I also participated in the most rewarding experiences in my life in high school, working for the school's International Peer Mentoring program, where I had the opportunity to tutor and mentor many recently arrived immigrants and help them "cope" with America. I could identify with them, as they were now in the position where I had been.

Clinton was great to me. Nonetheless, there were those who thought I didn't have what it takes to succeed. Moreover, they used to say that I had an "accent" which they didn't like or could not stand. Some "substitute" even recommended a local community college, telling me that it would be the best choice for me. That is why as soon as I began my high school career, in a more diverse and supportive environment, my initials became MOM (Man On a Mission). I took the most demanding and rigorous courses I could and excelled at every one of them, thus proving a lot of people wrong in the end.

As I now see it, I made the most out of every opportunity to be where I am now: Dartmouth, one of the finest educational institutions in the world. I have also learned a lot of things, one of those being what life and the American Dream is all about -- encountering new challenges and overcoming them.