From the Mountains to the Tower

Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
‘Long as I can see the light.

Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)

The above lyrics from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s  “Long As I Can See the Light,” reflect my love, experiences, and roots to the place I will forever call home.  Home, for me, is a town called Manassa, Colorado.  Manassa, is located in South Central Colorado’s San Luis Valley.  Set between two 14,000-foot mountain ranges, Manassa’s picturesque scenery is home to approximately 1000 people.  Manassa is also unique in that it is one of two towns “founded” by Mormon missionaries in an otherwise predominately Latino area.

My K-12 educational experience was reflective of living in the second poorest county in Colorado (the first was the county immediately south).  I did not have many educational opportunities or extra-curricular activities to get involved in outside of the established curriculum and college attendance was the exception rather than the norm for the high school I attended.  Although my parents set high academic expectations in my household, the fact that I am a first generation college bound student, left a lack of social capital to help navigate the college preparation and admission process.  Fortunately, however, I participated in Upward Bound, a federally funded TRIO program designed to help first generation, low-income students prepare for college.  With the help of Upward Bound, I was accepted into Colorado State University and was provided a scholarship to help alleviate some of the financial costs.

Because of this educational foundation, I was not prepared for the vibrant pace of a large, land grant, public institution.  Walking through the plaza on the first day was a surreal experience.  The waves of people shuffling between locations were overwhelming and vastly different than my community.  Colorado State was a culture shock for me in every sense of the word.  I had as many people in my residence hall as I had in my hometown; related the size of my first class was bigger than my high school population.   When I first arrived my hometown friend and college roommate would joke with each other that walking between academic buildings was like walking from “my house to your house” in Manassa.  Although, it was funny at the time, I also realized that this was our first attempt to adjust to our new environment.  Lastly, the predominately white campus starkly contrasted the perception of diversity I saw in Colorado State’s view book.

My first few weeks on campus were an emotional roller coaster. I felt proud to be the first in my family to attend an institution of higher education.  I was also happy to be the first in my family to leave “the Valley,”  (90% of my extended family from both sides lived within a 10 mile radius of my house.)  However, I also felt very lost and alone in my new home.  Attending CSU was the first time I was away from my family and friends.  I also did not feel I fit in with any people on my floor because I was usually the only person of color in my social circles.  Lastly, I remember being told by a professor of mine that I would flunk out of college by the end of my first year which was shocking to me because of my academic success in high school.  The combination of these factors led me to strongly considered withdrawing from the university and return home to attend a local college.

Participation in a summer bridge program was one of the biggest factors in deciding to stay at CSU.  With Bridge, I established a network of support amongst various university staff.  El Centro was an advocacy office on campus that provided resources and support to Latino/a students.  I discovered this office when a bridge counselor took me to meet the director after discussing my difficult transition into higher education. El Centro provided a space for me to feel at home and be around people who looked like me and shared similar experiences.  El Centro was also instrumental in getting involved within the CSU and Fort Collins community.  Additionally, participation in culturally relevant activities fostered pride in being a student of color on a predominantly white campus.  This helped develop a sense of belonging to CSU and alleviated my feelings of isolation.  Relieving these feelings allowed me to focus more on academics.

Another instrumental aspect of my academic endeavors has been pursuing ethnic studies.  Learning about social and systemic level oppression helped me contextualize my mental and physical space and place in academia. It also helped me make sense of how my early higher education experiences were impacted by growing up in a low socio-economic, rural community with limited opportunities.

Despite a very rocky start to my academic journey, I found a home at CSU that extended well beyond the walls of El Centro.  However, my desire and motivation came to a screeching halt at the beginning of my final year.  A series of personal events and family struggles caused me to lose interest and motivation in my studies.  As a result of these events, I chose to take time away from school to re-evaluate my priorities and goals.  During this time, I returned back to the Valley. Working in a warehouse provided a glimpse into the day-to-day, blue-collar work force that comprises the majority of the Valley’s population and helped me realize the privileges higher education provided.  Although, I spent almost three years performing intensive manual labor that often exceeded 60 hours a week, I knew that my situation was temporary and my educational background would allow me the opportunity to turn in my shovel for a back pack when I was ready.

In 2007, I returned to school to complete my degree from Colorado State.  I was extremely proud of the resilience I displayed to get back into school and was extremely driven to succeed in academia.  I also realized that leaving school resulted in a major void in my life from not being involved in academia.  I eventually graduated in May 2010 after a 10-year undergraduate journey.  The support I received from college mentors and former supervisors during my leave and re-engagement into the CSU community also fostered my decision to enter the world of student affairs and continue my trajectory into the ivory towers of academia via graduate school.

My graduate school tenure caused a re-examination of the successes and pains I experienced as a first-generation, Chicano, Valley grown, scholar in academia.  On a social spectrum, these identities are situated on opposite ends of a continuum as they relate to power, privilege, and opportunity for social mobility. The experiences I encountered in academia created a double-edged sword as I grappled with benefits and consequences of attaining an advanced degree in a meritocratic society.  On one hand, my choice to pursue an advanced degree reflected the culmination of many influential events and experiences.  It was a source of pride for me because of the resilience I demonstrated throughout my life and the ability to endure many hardships to attain a degree.   On the other hand, however, as one of the only members of my immediate and extended family, friends, and community to attend college, I felt my educational journey increased the physical and psychological distance between my Valley roots and academic identity.  It is difficult to fill the role of son, brother, and uncle while conveying to my family and friends that the academic journey changed some of the views and values I learned growing up.

Currently I am in my second year as Residence Life Coordinator at Grinnell College.  To some extent, I feel like my decision to work in a small, rural community in Iowa and in a small, private, liberal arts college, is a coping mechanism to persist in higher education.  The small, close-knit community Grinnell fosters is a return to the familiar upbringing I experienced growing up in the Valley.  As I did growing up, I now joke with students and colleagues that the best and worst thing about a small community is that you know everyone and sometimes it just depends on the day to decide which side of the fence you are on.

As an emerging student affairs practitioner and scholar I feel as if I am at a crossroads in my personal, professional, and academic development. The Valley is still the core of who I am and reason for persevering through this process.  The resilience, values, and work ethic I have developed is reflective of my family and community I was raised in.  My initial reason for attending college was to give back to my family and community by educating myself.  However, academia has created physical, mental, and emotional distance between my family and community.  However, the inherent elitist structure of academia has often caused me to question at what cost does my academic trajectory come?  I cannot help but notice that I am one of a handful of Latino males in higher education.  The lack of Latino male representation in the ivory tower has often caused me to question whether I should continue my educational endeavors into a PhD trek or aspire to senior level administration in student affairs.  In a sense, I feel I have internalized the notion of “you can’t be what you don’t see.”  In both my family life and professional career, I struggle being my entire “me” and often compartmentalize large parts of my identity to navigate each world.

In conclusion, I often feel I have a love, hate relationship with the academy.  I feel obligated to my family and community to “pay forward” the guidance, support, and encouragement the countless mentors have provided me. I also have faith in my ability to create social change within academia and surmount the interlocking systems of oppression the ivory tower has created to force a Chicano from the Valley to feel torn between two worlds.  Rather my experiences and determination will drive me create a space to live, grow, endure, and contribute to both.

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

                                                  John Cougar Mellencamp (1985)

Gabe Barela
Grinnell College

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