As a community of Spartans, we are more than the sum of our experiences. Everyone has a story and a perspective that deserves respect. Here are five.
I’ve been through a lot of struggles in my life, but I always said to myself: I’m going to be strong.
After high school, I went to trade school for construction here in San Jose. When Executive Order 9066 was signed and I was deported to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, this background really gave me an advantage. The camp was built in a rush. Construction began in June of ’42 and the camp opened in August when Japanese-Americans began arriving by train: 650 buildings for more than 10,000 internees up in two months’ time. By the time I arrived, the basic barracks were built but much of the infrastructure was incomplete. There were very few people in the camps who had gone to trade school so when they saw my papers, they put me in construction right away, overseeing jobs. At the most, I had 250 men working under me in the camps.
What I learned was that no one person is ever truly in charge of anybody.
The ground freezes six feet down in Wyoming. I don’t know if you know how cold that is. The first winter we were there, it was 30 degrees below zero and the rule was: whatever you do, don’t touch metal with skin. When they put in the sewer and water lines, they didn’t take the time to tamp the soil and, come winter, rain and snow water hit the pipes and froze them solid. We had no jackhammers, nothing—just strong muscle. All we could do was build a big bonfire, get it going at full blast, and dig. We dug 24 hours a day until we got down eight feet deep to the pipes. We patched them up and then tamped the soil down real good so the water wouldn’t get back down there. We learned as we went along in the camps. What I learned was that no one person is ever truly in charge of anybody.
My dad always used to say that as you go through life, you go through a dark tunnel. One day, if you walk far enough, you’ll see daylight on the other side. I’ve walked through all the discrimination, all the hardship. I walked through that tunnel and I see daylight. I enjoy the daylight.
I look at my son and I tell him: You have to know who you are. Yes, you’re black and Mexican and people might call you every name in the book. Get used to it. But don’t ever let somebody say something that’s going to break you.
I’m a Mexican immigrant and I’m proud of who I am. In my personal life—in my community and at my son’s school—I always feel like I have a voice. But when it comes to working at San Jose State, I feel differently. What happens on campus affects me personally, not just the students. Why don’t we talk more about how we feel, about how we experience race issues every day on this campus?
Sometimes coworkers make hateful comments. I wonder: Don’t you see that I’m brown? People don’t realize the impact that one person or one comment can have, especially when it comes to students. Yes, we’re a diverse campus. But how do we make this a great place for everyone in our community?
I tell my son: You are not only going to go to college, but you’re going to be involved in student government, because that’s where things are decided for you and your peers. I didn’t know that when I went to college at SJSU, but it’s clear to me now. To get through these campus issues, we really need to talk. And we shouldn’t only talk when bad things happen and they show up in the news. If we’re not being real, our students can see that.
People don’t realize the impact that one person or one comment can have, especially when it comes to students.
San Jose State has a lot to offer. But we need to focus on building unity. My faith that one day it will get better keeps me here. We all need to remember that we’re here for our students.
One of the most gratifying parts of my job is shaking students’ hands during the College of Engineering graduation ceremony. I remember when I met each individual. I see the incredible evolvement that has taken place. And I know that I helped them achieve that by sharing knowledge. My greatest reward as a professor is knowing that I help change people’s lives for the better.
Rebecca Mantecon came in as a freshman. She was the first student I ever advised all the way through from the beginning. It was such a unique experience for me to see this young 18-year-old woman who was very committed and nice, but so quiet and shy. Over the years, she gained knowledge and began to really develop a passion for the material. With that knowledge and passion, came confidence. Slowly, she transformed.
I see the incredible evolvement that has taken place. And I know that I helped them achieve that by sharing knowledge.
One afternoon, a colleague who was Rebecca’s instructor for the senior design capstone course remarked to me: “Rebecca is such a leader. I have never seen a student take charge of the group project with such grace and self-assurance.” She did so well that the instructor asked her to help other teams get started on their senior design projects. One of these was a healthcare industry process improvement project, and through this experience Rebecca discovered her calling.
After graduating in 2013, Rebecca returned to SJSU and is now one year away from earning her master’s degree in industrial engineering with plans to work in the healthcare industry. This summer she’s headed to Boston to do research at Northeastern University. She’s also the first teachers’ associate that I’ve ever hired. Rebecca hasn’t changed who she is. She’s still quiet, but now she has a remarkable reserved confidence.
I know at least one person who is killed every year in my neighborhood. I’m from the Oceanview community of San Francisco; some blocks are better than others, but the block I grew up on isn’t one of those. It’s not gang violence as much as just hatred. Jealousy. Drugs. I try not to think about all the violence, but deep down it really bothers me. I used to cry, even when I didn’t know the person who was killed. But I’ve never been afraid. It’s home.
When I was a student at Balboa High School, I joined a youth violence prevention group called United Playaz. School staff members and students founded the group after a period of high violence and gang activity in the ’90s. The idea of United Playaz is to establish youth leadership at the source of the issue. They say: “It takes the ’hood to save the ’hood.”
In my ’hood, I grew up with a whole bunch of cousins and extended family. Every day after elementary school we’d all go over to my grandmother’s house, right around the corner from where my sister and I lived with our mother and aunt. There would be 10 of us, bouncing around. Out of all of those kids, I am the only one who is in college. Some of them have been sucked into the violence—the hatred, the jealousy, the drugs.
I want to be an example to the younger members of my family. It’s important to show people that you can be more than your circumstances.
I could have very well been like them. I could have been a statistic: somebody’s addict, somebody’s dealer, somebody’s fighter. I could be dead. I could have been all kinds of things, but I’m not. I believe it’s for a reason, that there is a higher power that’s put me on this path. So I’ve worked hard to better my circumstances and the circumstances of those around me. I stay active in my community and I work to create a better environment for my fellow students here at SJSU. I want to be an example to the younger members of my family. It’s important to show people that you can be more than your circumstances.
As a professor, I teach students about taking charge of their lives. This isn’t just about being responsible. It’s about having the opportunity to make things happen for themselves, their families and their communities. If you have a history of education in your family, you tend to see the world as your oyster: you just have to pluck it and eat it. But for many, especially first-generation students, the idea that they can choose to change their circumstances when faced with obstacles is foreign.
It’s important to know that if you don’t like the way things are, you can make things different. There are always choices.
My students do two month-long group projects every semester, both with the same group. During the first project, if someone in the group is slacking, the rest of the students will suck it up and deal with it. But when project two rolls around, I’ve had students yelling in the library. They can’t take it anymore. They haven’t learned how to handle that conflict yet.
I tell them: It’s about figuring out where your goals mesh, rather than competing. How can you both achieve your goals? If that’s not possible, then how about asking what tradeoffs can be made? Recognize what you bring to a project and enhance that. Communicate with others. Work it out. Some people avoid conflict—and that’s not necessarily the best behavior.
At some point, we all feel totally unable to get a grasp of what’s going on in our lives, but it’s important to know that if you don’t like the way things are, you can make things different. There are always choices.