Student, Professional, Friend with Drive
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:16
Photo courtesy of Carlos González '14
González wrote an interdisciplinary thesis in Latino studies.

The first thing that strikes you about Carlos A. González is his disposition. The man is personable. I remember meeting him in Val at the beginning of spring semester. Instead of cursorily shaking my hand, he got up from his seat and gave me a hug. We conversed with the ease of long-lost friends. When I finally had to run to start my English paper, he gave me one final hug and we agreed to talk more soon. I would see González interact this way with others multiple times thereafter, whether he had just met them or not.

González’s experience is not one we oftentimes put in the spotlight here at Amherst. He is a low-income, Latino transfer student who was undocumented until only a year and a half ago. He created his own major, one he believes the college is severely lacking. He has been nominated for summa cum laude. He gorges on political dramas like “Suits” and “House of Cards.” Ladies, he is the college’s (self-proclaimed) best bachata dancer. This is his story.

Coming to the States

When González was eight years old, his father passed away. The death hit his family hard, not only emotionally, but also economically. González’s mother had not gone to college, and for the next couple of years, their family lived off his father’s pension. Finally, there came a point when ends could not be met without sacrifice. González’s mother could no longer afford to send her children to private school, but she did not trust the Dominican Republic’s public school system, which had a reputation for being ineffective.

However, González’s father had left the family with visas to travel to the U.S., visas that were going to expire soon. His mother had to make a choice: stay in their home country, where there was very little economic opportunity, or go to the States. She chose the latter, and in 2002, the family — González, his mother and his two sisters — relocated to Pennsylvania.

Excelling in High School

Keeping in mind his mother’s efforts and his father’s memory, González worked hard to become the best college applicant he could be. As a high school student, González participated in activities that involved doing what he loved most: working with people. He was in Model United Nations, the National Honor Society, Student Council and the Bi-County Youth Peace Council, an organization devoted to educating high school students about alcohol, drugs and abstinence.

Still, González’s identity as an immigrant proved difficult, especially in a predominantly white, middle-class suburban school.

“People always seemed surprised that I could speak good English. I was also told that I was different from the other Latino students because I did well academically. They were basically implying the other Latino students weren’t usually intelligent,” González said.

Despite graduating in the top 10 percent of his class, González did not get accepted into many of the colleges he had applied to, and the schools that accepted him did not provide him with enough financial aid because of his undocumented status.
“After I busted my butt, it was difficult to not be given an educational opportunity just because I was undocumented,” González said.

Still determined to get ahead, González accepted a scholarship from Harrisburg Area Community College, Lancaster Campus.

An Unplanned Opportunity

González thrived at community college, where he began to really explore his Latino identity. In addition to serving as student body president, he was heavily involved in his school’s Latino student organization.

“It was there that I learned to be proud of my heritage. In high school, I was just trying to get out and be like everybody else,” González said.

González interned with the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, during which he learned about the roles and needs of the increasing Latino population in Pennsylvania and the nation as a whole. In addition to this and similar community engagement positions, González worked under the table as an undocumented citizen and consistently took on an overflowing course load. Just like in high school, his goal was to get into a prestigious four-year college. Unlike in high school, he had grown wiser. He knew that only certain schools could accommodate him as an undocumented student.
González had learned about Amherst through a Questbridge conference in high school, and he knew that the college accepted transfer students. But, more importantly, he knew that Amherst provided financial aid that could accommodate his current immigration status. He applied but was waitlisted. Hopeful, González called the admissions office and asked what could be done.

“One of the assistant deans of admissions, Alexandra Hurd, told me that they hadn’t gotten someone off the transfer waitlist in years. I don’t know. I had this feeling. I told her, ‘That’s fine. I’ll see you in the fall,’” González said.

A couple of weeks later, González got a call from the Office of Admissions notifying him of his acceptance.

As I interviewed González, tears gathered in his eyes as he recounted the day he got the news. His mother did not know he had applied to Amherst. He wanted to surprise her.

“My mom came home from work and I said, ‘What do you think about me moving to Massachusetts?’ She said, ‘Whatever’s best for you,’” González recalled.

When he learned about the acceptance, González’s high school mentor and history teacher, Walt VanderHeijden, was delighted and unsurprised.

“Speaking no English as a bewildered middle school student, living in a stateless limbo and suffering chronic financial deprivation, his journey has been one of unflinching focus on the vision of success, the belief in the triumph of hard work and the inherent goodness of people,” VanderHeijden said.

Graduating as the valedictorian of his community college’s class, González headed off to Amherst in the fall of 2011.

Starting at Amherst

González was both excited and absolutely frightened to come to Amherst.

“I did CEOT and I was just really scared. It’s a tradition to write a letter to your end-of-the year self and I remember writing, ‘It’s gonna get hard. You’ve got to work hard,’” González said.

With the guidance of his mentors, including VanderHeijden and Associate Professor of History Rick López, González excelled academically. However, he was also concerned with life outside of academia. He immediately got involved with La Causa, the college’s Latino student organization. As La Causa’s junior chair and senior chair, he got to celebrate his ethnic identity with other students. His fondest memory of his time in La Causa was the Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration, held in collaboration with the Spanish Department, the Spanish House and La Casa.

Social Justice

In the summer of 2012, González interned at the Midwest Academy, a Chicago-based organization focused on community development. It was there that he first learned about the importance of responsible citizenship. González’s task was to lead residents of Brighton Park against a possible budget cut that would have eliminated funds for neighborhood violence prevention.

“I learned that for a democracy to work, it has to have engaged citizens. Voting is important, but it’s not enough,” González said.

Keron Blair, a trainer at Midwest Academy, recalls how dedicated González was to the job.

“I have nothing but the best things to say about Carlos,” Blair praised. “He is absolutely one of the best interns I’ve had in my time as an organizer. It was clear from day one that he wanted to learn as much as he could during the program. His commitment to furthering human rights and social justice is evident in just a single conversation with him, and it’s remarkably contagious.”

González was inspired to apply his newly learned principles of social justice to his own community: the Dominican diaspora. Knowing that most Dominican immigrants leave because of the socio-economic situation of Dominican Republic, González wondered to what extent the diaspora was involved in the country’s politics. His special topics course, Dominican Transnational Politics, served as the basis for this inquiry. Later on, the special topics became his thesis topic.

Writing a Thesis

González’s thesis identifies and explains clientelism in the Dominican diaspora. López, one of the thesis’s readers, calls it “outstanding.”

“We unanimously nominated Carlos’s thesis for summa cum laude based on its depth of research, impressive critical analysis, original contribution to the literature and its integration of diverse disciplinary approaches,” López said.

González made it a point to write his thesis through his self-crafted interdisciplinary Latino studies major.

“I wanted to learn about a group of people crucial to U.S. history and culture. Latino studies is needed at this college and there’s currently discussion about its institutional creation,” González said.

Post-Amherst

Immediately after graduation, González will be a participant in the Humanity in Action Fellowship — an intensive program exploring the origins and possible solutions for varying forms of discrimination. Within the next two years, González hopes to serve as the National Legislative Director for the United States Student Association, the largest student-led organization in the country. There, he hopes to continue working on making higher education accessible and affordable. He is currently a trainer for the organization. And ultimately, one day González hopes to pursue public office in the Dominican Republic.

The Man Remains Personable

While I have highlighted González’s many professional accomplishments, I want to end by again highlighting his demeanor as a person. Indeed, in spite of all that he has done, González remains caring and down-to-earth.

One of his good friends, fellow senior Ana Lucia Murillo, summarizes González nicely.

“I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding out about Carlos’s many academic accomplishments, successes as an activist, blah blah blah. Besides this, Carlos is also one of the sweetest and most sensitive people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my years here. He loves unreservedly. He lets people know they are special and appreciated. It’s been a gift not only to see the work he’s done but to come to understand the many reasons why he does it.”

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