Empowering the Next Generation for Higher Education

SIO weekend provides tools for ‘dismantling systems and cultivating identities’

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Kimberly Balmorez, now in her fourth year, knew she wanted to attend UC Santa Cruz when she visited campus in 2014 for Student-Initiated Outreach (SIO) weekend.

“It was the first time I was surrounded by a large amount of Filipinos,” said Balmorez, who grew up in the East Bay. “I identify as Filipino myself, and it was very weird to me, but very grounding as well, learning about my own history and culture. […] I had never thought about higher education in the way that Student-Initiated Outreach programs talk about it.”

Balmorez is one of thousands of high school and transfer students to visit UCSC  Santa Cruz over the SIO program’s 20 plus year history. Every year, students of Pilipinx, Latinx andor Afrikan/Black/Caribbean descent from low-income and under-resourced communities around California travel to Santa Cruz for the program. UCSC students share their experiences with SIO participants to build community and provide insight to navigating higher education as people of color.

Students take part in one of three programs: A Step Forward (ASF), organized by the student association Bayanihan, Destination Higher Education (DHE), organized by the Black Student Union (BSU) or Oportunidades Rumbo A la Educación (ORALE), organized by the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA). SIO weekend is led by Engaging Education (e²), a student-initiated outreach and retention center for underrepresented communities, and other student-run organizations.

This year’s program, which took place April 13-15, centered on a cross-program theme of “dismantling systems and cultivating identities,” through workshops, seminars and speakers to establish tools necessary to succeed in higher education.

Kimberly Balmorez said it was her experience in SIO that led her to choose UCSC. Since beginning school here, she has volunteered for SIO every year and served as a coordinator in 2016 for ASF.

“[ASF] is what helped me come to this school. It was nice knowing that in coming to UCSC I would already have a community to be with and people to know,” Balmorez said.

For the past five years, about 60 percent of the students who attended SIO weekend enrolled at UCSC and many current volunteers and organizers came up through the program when they were in high school. However, the overall goal of SIO weekend is to inspire students of color to pursue higher education in general, even if not at UCSC.

Though in the past SIO organizers concentrated on bonding within each group, this year cross-cultural community building was on the forefront of student organizers’ minds.

“This whole [political] climate has taken a toll on a lot of communities,” said ORALE organizer and fourth-year Mariela Gonzalez. “They feel like things are worsening, which we can see they are. A lot of communities are being affected. This is a good time for us to build solidarity and come together […] not just be allies but comrades.”

The groups emphasized building collaboration and solidarity through lectures and social events that all of the participants attended together.

The Speakers

On April 13, at the opening ceremony at the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room, the students were welcomed with three speeches from UCSC alumni representing each organization. The speakers shared their experiences as students of color and how to navigate a system built against them.

Adrianne Sebastian – “Dare to struggle, do not be afraid” – “Makibaka! Huwag matakot!”

To open the speaking ceremony, doctoral student and UCSC alumna Adrianne Sebastian had the crowd of high schoolers chant the Filipino phrase “Makibaka! Huwag Matakot!” meaning “Dare to struggle, do not be afraid.” Her speech centered around unified resilience as an aid to their success in higher education as students of color.

Sebastian, who spoke on behalf of ASF, representing the Pilipinx and Asian American community, graduated with the Oakes class of 2012.

As an active member of the National Democratic Movement of the Philippines, Sebastian organizes daily to see the liberation of the Pilipinx people from the Duterte regime.

Currently, one person dies every 33 minutes under President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, Sebastian explained. While visiting the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, she was able to integrate with the community there and provide health services. She credits this experience and the strength and determination of the Pilipinx people as her inspiration to keep going and keep organizing, she said.

“People’s movements are led by the people experiencing the oppression,” Sebastian said to the crowd. “People know what their needs are, they know what their truths are, and they go out there and create the solutions. That’s what organizing is. That’s what movements are. That’s what liberation is.”

Sebastian hoped the students of SIO weekend would find international solidarity with one another in order to support each other’s success and fight for justice.

“Even being in this educational institution there is a lot in its structure that makes sure its 10 times harder for us to pass our classes, pay off our loans and to just make it through,” Sebastian said.  “I hope that [students] get across that linking arms together, and supporting each other and protecting each other is how the majority of us are going to get out.”

Gustavo Adolfo Guerra Vásquez – “Work smart”

Imagine an 8-year-old boy making the perilous journey from Guatemala, and through Mexico,  just to see his parents again. Imagine that 8-year-old arriving in a land where he needed interpreters to understand what his classmates were saying. Imagine that same boy wondering whether he would have to run from immigration if they raided his new school.

UCSC alumnus Gustavo Adolfo Guerra Vásquez, who spoke for ORALE, representing the Latinx community, gave these instructions to the crowd reflecting on his personal story. He graduated in 1995 from Oakes College, with a bachelor’s degree in literature with a focus in Spanish literature.

Vásquez spoke about the importance of  “working smart,” which is not only about working hard on school work but building communities in higher education by developing friendships and relationships with fellow students and staff so they can succeed during their time here.

“It wasn’t just a matter of hard work that got me here and to graduate from this university,” Vásquez told City on a Hill Press. “It was also a matter of how smart you work [… and] about who I created a community with, and how I used the things inside me, like my drive and dedication, as well as my desire to do better and as well as the people who I surrounded myself with.”

Currently, Vásquez works for the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, which works to prevent, intervene in and document hate activity in Los Angeles County. Vásquez supervises the training of teachers and youth workers so young people are equipped to handle issues surrounding racism, sexism, homophobia and other manifestations of hatred at an interpersonal and systemic level.

“If we don’t improve human relations, if we don’t improve these kinds of systems, we are actually going to end up suffering more,” Vásquez said.  “It is important for all of us to improve the way we get along and dismantle systems of oppression.”

Darrick Smith – “You were valuable before you even came here”

Welcomed with thunderous applause, Darrick Smith quietly took the stage before igniting and empowering the crowd of high school seniors and transfer students with a speech centered around self-worth. He challenged them to reevaluate their perception of themselves, outside of the institutions that try to define them.

Smith is a UCSC alumnus from Oakes College who spoke on behalf of DHE, representing the Afrikan/Black/Caribbean community. During his time at UCSC, Smith helped establish the Black Men’s Alliance (BMA).

In his speech, Smith brought up questions of courage, confrontation, reflection and the ability to be self-critical of the ways we perpetuate various forms of dehumanization, such as racism, anti-blackness and heteronormativity.

Smith wants students to challenge themselves to do more than acknowledge oppression, but choose a side in their fight for social justice.   

“We have to be critical of our own behavior to other humans and how we engage with other humans because that’s really how oppression is perpetuated, in addition to being targeted by these external factors,” Smith said.

Smith emphasized asking questions to develop and reconstruct the value of yourself, independent of these institutions.

“The institution is not designed for your liberation […] you were valuable before you even came here,” Smith said to the on-looking SIO participants.

Currently, Smith is the co-director of University of San Francisco’s School of Administration’s credential program. Known as the Transformative School Leadership Program, Smith helps train educators and school leaders to sustain schools committed to social justice and success.

Anti-Blackness Workshop

All three groups attended an anti-Blackness workshop, which featured a lecture by Darrick Smith, assistant professor in the School of Education at University of San Francisco and UCSC alumnus. Following his presentation, student volunteers facilitated a cross-group discussion about how anti-Blackness appears internally and in their own communities. Multiple student volunteers said this year marked the first time in SIO’s over 20 years of history that the groups facilitated a collaborative event like this.

“It was important we all did it together, rather than it just being geared toward the Black students, because the solution to trying to rectify and get rid of some of the anti-Black attitudes is to have those conversations [about it] together,” said DHE high school participant Kayla Faye Hurd. “Socializing with multiple cultures is really how you get toward that.”

The workshop was an opportunity for conversation and a chance to build cross-cultural alliances.

In his lecture, Smith addressed the importance of self-identity in creating community and asserting personal value. The conversation on anti-Blackness challenged students to define Blackness and understand how these definitions are sometimes used as tools of oppression.

“So in this idea of anti-Blackness we have to remember what it means for Black folks to be conscious of how we manifest anti-Blackness among ourselves,” Smith said. “[…] We’re not trying to divide, we’re trying to make real and apparent the ideas that keep us from understanding each other, so we can come together.”

The Programs

ASF – A Step Forward

ASF, organized by Bayanihan, invited students from underserved communities of Pilipinx identity. Within the ASF theme, “Dare to Struggle, Do Not be Afraid,” the program addressed subjects like finding common history and dismantling systems of oppression.

“SIO is a fun way for people to engage in conversations [about Pilipinx identity] they don’t get to have in high school,” organizer Jenn Santos said.

ASF’s weekend program featured lectures on Pilipinx identity and history, as well as practical workshops on understanding financial aid and navigating higher education. Katie Macasa, Palo Alto high school senior and ASF student, voiced that her main concern about higher education was that she may not find her niche in college, having been used to a close-knit community of friends and family at home. ASF helped her visualize herself finding her place in a new world.

“With this program, I saw how you could create a community away from home. So you could be a part of a community, even though you’re in college,” Macasa said.

Oportunidades Rumbo A la Educación (ORALE)

MEChA’s program, ORALE, invited students from Chicanx and Latinx backgrounds to SIO. The slogan for ORALE this year was “Rompiendo la tradición del silencio,” or “Breaking the tradition of silence.” The program addressed topics on identity, community and handling the stresses of higher education.

“We thought about what would be helpful for high school students to know and what could have benefitted us. […] [We are] giving them resources and tools so that they can be prepared,” said ORALE organizer and fourth-year Mariela Gonzalez.

The program featured workshops such as “Education in the Age of Trump,” understanding financial aid and admissions and mock lectures.

“One of the [workshops] we’re excited about is self care because it’s not something that’s always discussed within the Chicanx community,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to talk about stress and what it is, and depression, and what it’s like [to have] the pressure of being a first generation student, and how that can affect you on campus.”

Many volunteers stressed that the goal of MEChA’s program was to show that students can find their family at UCSC.

“At other schools, whenever I would go, I wouldn’t feel like I belong there, but here I feel that I could definitely see myself,” said ORALE high school student Jackeline Rivas.

DHE – Destination Higher Education

DHE, organized by the Black Student Union (BSU), focused their program on community building, representation and retention in higher education. The specific theme of their program this year was
“Dismantle our chains, liberate our brains.”

“[SIO] is really important for the Black community because if we don’t do it, nobody will,” said BSU president and DHE volunteer Basheera Ali-El. “We try our best to really yield Black students [from this event] because we only represent 1.7 percent of students on campus.”

The event organizers reflected on what accommodations students will need, both on and off campus, and provided workshops that cater directly to those needs. In addition to the anti-Blackness workshop, DHE staged a mock BSU meeting and hosted students in the lounges of the Rosa Parks African American Theme House.

“This weekend wasn’t just about a campus tour or […] asking questions about financial aid,” said DHE organizer Manaiya Scott. “[It was about] seeing how I’ll be perceived on this campus as a Black student or a person of color and how to navigate the institution and university in that way.”