Monday, May 2, 2016

Ramona Mora - SMART Goes to College Speech 2016

Ramona with her mother
While most seventeen-year-olds are focused on the college application process; I spent my junior year helping my family through an eviction. The building we have lived in since I was born was bought by a new owner who wanted to take advantage of my parents’ limited language skills to kick us out. My parents immigrated from Mexico when they were in their early teens. My dad only attended third grade and drove a truck, my mother attended middle school and took care of our family. Despite their own lack of education, they believed that it was the key to their children’s successes - their dream was for me to be the first in my family to graduate from college. They sacrificed everything to make this possible.

Yet, because of their long work hours and limited language skills, they depended on me - the oldest in the household - to take on a lot of adult responsibilities. I found myself too often arguing with the new owners of the building, defending my family against the heartless tactics they were taking. In the midst of this crisis, my dad suffered an injury on the job and was no longer able to work, even though he was the sole provider for our family.  We had to rely only on his disability check, which had to cover bills, tuition, and all other essential expenses.

The task of having to look for a place to live was exhausting and soul crushing, at one point my dad thought that our only option would be to move to Vallejo or Richmond. My sister and I would have to transfer out of our current schools, and the thought of leaving Drew was unbearable. I worked hard to earn a spot at Drew, a school that has provided me with the privilege of a new way of learning. I was taught how to think critically, I was made more aware of the world around me through service trips they offered, and I have an incredible community of friends and teachers. I was heartbroken about the potential of leaving Drew, but most of all - I was devastated at the possibility of having to leave SMART.

When I think of family, I think of SMART. It has been my second home during the last 8 years of my life. This community has been with me through the smallest and biggest moments of my life. They supported my transition into Live Oak School and Drew School, gave me moral support when I got my first haircut ever, and celebrated with me when I received my college acceptances. When I was younger, my parents sought out opportunities to help my sister and me and when they came across the SMART Program they could not believe the opportunities that the program offered. SMART’s support and everything they have provided for me are priceless. I am certain that I would not have been able to go through the personal hardships I faced last year, when I felt I couldn’t accomplish my dreams, without their support.

As the eviction process moved on, I watched helplessly as construction workers began destroying walls, wires, and changed locks. With the walls, they were tearing down my childhood memories - where I played imaginary games with my cousins and stories were shared with family. They were literally destroying my home and my sense of security. I tried to be the strong, mature adult around my parents that they needed me to be, but I felt vulnerable. I cried often in my school bathroom, just wanting to be a normal teenager - but feeling alone having to face these atypical challenges. I cared about my grades, but I also cared about having a place to live. The emotional safety that SMART and my counselor’s office afforded me were my only light during such a dark moment of my life. Miraculously, a month before our eviction due date, my dad found a decent place to live in Daly City. My family was the last to move out of our building. 

Ramona before giving her speech
The new place is a remodeled garage, with one room, one bathroom, and an extension, which houses a mattress for my parents to sleep in and a hot plate where we cook our food. The "apartment" does not have a stove or an oven. It has been difficult to get accustomed to the new living space, but I remind myself that a year ago, the stress I had felt over not being able to find a place to live, was incredibly overwhelming, and I would not want to go back to those times. I am just immensely grateful to have a roof over my head and a place to sleep at night. 

Although the eviction was the most difficult event that has happened to me, I feel grateful for the experience.  My parents were never able to give me material things, but they taught me to have strong morals and values including hard work, determination and resilience, which I recognize now as skillsets that helped me get through this experience. I learned that it is possible to overcome a deep sense of defeat when you are surrounded by supportive family and community. 

I am proud that I maintained a 4.0 GPA, while taking challenging AP and honors courses. I participated in extracurriculars at school such as the badminton team and a myriad of clubs. I continued to challenge myself outside of school. I enrolled in a Latino Diaspora class at city college. I participated in a leadership conference for Latino youth at UC Berkeley. I now have skills that will be invaluable to me through college and beyond. The eviction taught me to be resilient and perseverant while going through a difficult emotional time. I learned how to multi-task; being focused at school while also being emotionally supportive to my parents. And, I learned how to self-advocate. It helped define me as the independent young woman I am today.

I stand here before you today, soon to be the first in my family to graduate high school. This last year I applied to 14 colleges and I am beyond excited to start a new chapter of my life at my #1 choice school, UC Davis, next year. Earlier this month, my parents and my sister joined me in visiting the UC Davis campus and I have to admit I was a little mortified by my parents’ excitement. They seemed more giddy than I was about being a student there. My mom took so many selfies. My dad got so emotional that he had to "get something from the car" too many times.

My SMART family provided me with the tools necessary to be successful at school, and supported me emotionally as I faced immense challenges. I am forever grateful to them and their role in my success today. As an example of their never ending badgering, SMART’s college counselor Karla told me to apply to a program that I was sure was going to waste my time. She gave me encouragement, revised my essays, harassed me by phone and texts to meet the deadlines that at one point I almost blocked her from my phone. Just last week I received a large packet in the mail. Convinced that they were sending me a t-shirt as a consolation prize for a rejection, I opened the packet upside down and this piece of paper fell out:

"We welcome Ramona Mora as a Gates Millennium Scholar of 2016."

The Gates Millennium Scholars program had 53,000 applicants and I am one of the 1,000 scholars to receive leadership development programs and most importantly allow me to graduate college without any loans. Through this program, I intend to major in political science and pursue a law degree, and I look forward to coming back as a successful immigration lawyer, and to be a role model for future generations of SMART Scholars.

Thank you for allowing me to share my story, for your support for this incredible program, and thank you SMART.