“What is it about your background, your experiences or your story that will enrich our community?”
As a high school senior, I stared at that college-application question for a long time. After working so hard in my classes, my future now depended on defining the entirety of my identity in 300 words or less.
So much of the application reduced who I was to mere categories: Male. Minority. Half-Hispanic. Wenatchee, Washington. Son of a Mexican immigrant. Graduate from a large public school full of high-achieving wealthy Caucasian students. I knew I was much more, but where to begin?
While applying to college is unknown territory for every high school student, students with backgrounds like mine often have no clear person to turn to along the way. My parents didn’t have much college experience, and my school didn’t help me much in navigating the application process.
Fortunately, part of the answer came in the form of a mentor named Adam Omary, a freshman at the University of Southern California who had recently traversed the same challenges. We were connected through CollegePoint, a program supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies that offers free virtual college counseling and personalized guidance for high-achieving, lower-income high school students.
From the start, Adam had no prejudgments about me. To him, I wasn’t just Xavier, the son of a Mexican immigrant from Central Washington. I was Xavier, the guy who loves solitaire and goats.
Adam helped me navigate the world of all things college applications — from developing a list of the universities to apply to, to managing recommendation letters and deadlines, to reviewing each draft of my colleges essays. Despite our frequent contact through text messages, email and video chats, we never met in person. But through this relationship, the stress of getting into college was suddenly less onerous and my dream felt in sight.
With the support of Adam and CollegePoint, I applied to 16 universities, many of which I wouldn’t have considered applying to on my own.
What’s more, after spending years learning how to embrace my mixed culture on my own, Adam helped me translate who I was into words for my college essays. I began with, “I became a Munchkin when I was just six years old …”
I shared with the college admissions boards a fateful early childhood summer when I traded in my school clothes for a monochromatic outfit. Then, behind my mask of forest green, glittering face paint, I performed my heart out inside a poorly-ventilated high school auditorium. Dorothy’s shoes sparkled ruby-red in front of me as we brought “The Wizard of Oz” to life.
It was only when the costumes came off that I noticed reality enter from stage right. The performance was the summation of only a week of hard work by our cast, almost all of whom had developmental disabilities.
Being so young, I hadn’t noticed that it took the rest of the performers longer than me to form words. I didn’t catch the muffled laughs when the Scarecrow sang “If I Only Had a Brain.” In fact, it took me a few years to realize the reason I was even in the play was due to my sister, who was born with Down syndrome. Each year since then, I’ve acted, attended or assisted with the show.
It’s fitting that Adam’s lack of preconceptions when meeting me reminded me of how hard I try to emulate that mindset in my own life.
Just as all of us in “The Wizard of Oz” were united simply as members of cast and crew, so I’ll join people from all backgrounds, states and countries at Stanford University this fall.
Flicking away my prejudgments, I put that nostalgic Munchkin mask back on and greet the newest actor I meet with an open mind. After all, we do have a show to put on.