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Take off our masks

| Monday, March 4, 2019

The first time I saw Show Some Skin, it resonated with me on a deep level. One of the things that struck me the hardest was that there were other students just like me on campus, students who did not fit the “Notre Dame stereotype,” students who look like you and me. Students who are on financial aid.

Inside the theater, when the lights are dimmed and everyone hangs on the resonating words of the actors with bated breath, we are all Notre Dame. We are all in the same space, physically and mentally. The frustrating thing is that I often do not experience this outside the curtain and voice of the actor. Once I step outside, I feel like I am entering another theater. Only this time I am the actor. There is a stigma with “financial aid,” and I have found that I put on the mask of the “Notre Dame stereotype” to avoid it. I am sometimes afraid I will become my mask, an echo of myself, and forget my roots in the process.

And that is why I am writing to you. I want to show you that there are students who are receiving financial aid and they are just like you. In fact, US News and World Report states that 48 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates receive financial aid in some capacity. There should not be a stigma to be who you are, who we are. I want to show that you can take off your mask and stop acting.

Of course, I understand how difficult it is navigating the bridge sometimes. It might sound trivial but there are times when I literally face a conflict joking with my friends about the food in the dining halls. I have come from times when all my family had to eat was beans and tortilla chips. The ham and cheese may not be fine dining, but it is hard to complain that we receive all-you-can-eat food anytime we are hungry.

And to my friends who cannot understand, I am sorry. I am sorry that I cannot go to New York and Hawaii on breaks. I am sorry that I won’t be able to go to the movie theater or ride in the Uber with you every time you want to. It is not because I do not want to spend time with you, it is not out of bitterness that I simply cannot go to downtown South Bend every time you want to do something. I am not sorry that I am this way. I am sorry that we won’t always be on the same level when it comes to these things. But I turn to all those students who are like me, because I know for a fact that they are here taking classes with me and walking the same halls and when I say that this should not be a reason for wearing a mask of conformity to a stereotype that is not truthful of the real Notre Dame student.

Let me be brutally honest with you and say that taking off this mask is extremely difficult for me. Just as the frigid weather of South Bend has made the New Mexican winter less overbearing to me, there are times when I am afraid that I will lose important aspects of myself in an effort to bridge the space between the misunderstanding. There is a temptation to play the game because it seems like our peers won’t ever reach the same plane we are on. “Why yes,” the reflection of you will say. “I traveled the world in eighty days over break.” In the faces of passing students, in the trail their footprints leave through puddles of rain, I search for the voices behind the authors of the Show Some Skin monologues. But I think I have finally found who they are and I cannot believe that the answer was so simple.  

They are you and me.

During my younger sister’s orientation weekend last semester, I remember attending the reception for multicultural students. There was a panel of students at this event and one of the topics they discussed was the feeling that they sometimes do not feel like they belong, both in the context of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Bob Mundy, the director of admissions, interrupted the panel and his words stick with me today. He stated that he was disheartened that students felt this way. “I personally signed each and every one of your acceptance letters,” he said. “You are [Notre Dame] and you belong here in the most fundamental way possible.” The statement “feeling like you belong” is misleading and dangerous because it is automatically constructing an ideal that you are setting yourself apart from. The simple truth is that we are here because our minds and our stories are beautiful. We not belong to an unattainable ideal. We are ND and we set the ideals.

I write this to the students of Notre Dame who are on financial aid and feel like they are living behind a mask defined by stigma for being who they are. But I write this to myself just as much as I am writing to all of you. As the lights turn on, reach for my hand. Take off my mask and I will take off yours. Let us help each other step off the stage. When we step out from the darkness of the theater, the natural light of the outside will be painfully bright to our eyes for a time. Once your eyes adjust and we can see each other for who we really are, I look forward to meeting you.

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

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