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It’s a wonderful life

| Thursday, February 27, 2014

Feeling out of place is a common human sentiment. In a recent conversation with my parents, they told me about a recruiting event they participated in for my younger sister, Ariana’s, university. My mom loved the opportunity to brag about her daughter, and my dad was inspired by the conversations he had with the alumni there. In spite of how much they enjoyed the event, though, my parents explained how they couldn’t help but feel out of place — like being a foreigner in a country where you don’t know the language or culture. I understood the exact feeling they were referring to.

I first felt this type of displacement during the mandatory diversity week through Notre Dame’s Contemporary Topics course. Our speakers asked each of us to raise our hands when our family’s salary range was called. I can still feel the sharp pangs of embarrassment when my hand was the only one raised in a range below $100 thousand.

This situation brought me back to a story my mom once told me about her first middle school dance. Unable to afford a dress for the occasion, my aunt made one for her in a sewing class — a dress my mom absolutely loved and felt beautiful in. Proud and confident, she arrived at the dance and was ridiculed and teased for her outfit until she left in tears. While no one made fun of me in the moment when my raised hand admitted my family’s income, I felt that what I had been proud of no longer mattered. My backstory was reduced to a statistic the speaker used to prove that “not everyone at Notre Dame is rich and white.” Notre Dame wasn’t the place I was promised it’d be. I felt branded, degraded and on display. I felt out of place.

The speakers had good intentions, and I understood the point they were trying to make. One of the most difficult things to keep in perspective, though, is how to preserve the human dignity and value of the people you talk about or try to help. Sometimes, while our intentions are good, we fail to reach true solidarity with another group and miss some of the most important aspects of the problem.

Like my mom was of her dress, I was proud of my life. I celebrated a momentous occasion being the first in my family to go to college. Friends and family shared in my excitement and placed the weight of inspiring their kids on my shoulders. My parents came from a poverty that showed them racism, low-wage jobs and times without food. They dropped out of high school to support their growing family and sacrificed everything to give us what they never had. Because they were always working, my two older sisters essentially raised Ariana and me. Yet, Dad never missed a basketball game and Mom was my Girl Scout leader. Like anyone else’s, my backstory, and not my family’s income, is an important way to understand true diversity.

College ultimately made me two different people. When I’m home, I simplify my speech to avoid coming off as pretentious, and at school I try to have enriching experiences on a budget my peers can’t relate to. It’s embarrassing when your card is declined at a restaurant and stinks having to opt out of going out because you know there’s not enough money for it. I hurt when my family needs to borrow money, and I’ve broken down when I ran out of flex points because there was no extra money after my car payment kicked in.
Without financial aid, I couldn’t even dream of being at Notre Dame. My high school did not prepare me well for college, and working multiple jobs on top of these 15-credit semesters, sports and extracurriculars exacerbated my eating disorder. All of these stresses on top of being a student are exhausting, and my GPA felt it. Thankfully, I’ve made incredibly supportive friends whose light inspired the life I’d like to create for my own children. We’ve learned from each other and helped shape the adults we are turning out to be.

My feelings of displacement are unchanging, but my perspective certainly has evolved. Lately, I’ve been feeling out of place abroad because I can’t afford to enjoy Brazil the way my friends can. But if I ever cry, it’s because my family demonstrates a selfless love that continues to teach me the meaning of Christianity. My dad gave up his dreams of traveling so I could see the world instead, and my mom miraculously finds a way to put a little extra in my account. I may feel out of place in the world my parents wanted for me, but their love is all I need to understand my privilege and know that I truly have a wonderful life.

Amanda Peña is a junior and a sustainable development studies major with a poverty studies minor.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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