January 2, 2012: Iris Perez, a student at Oakland Unity High School, is a finalist for one of this year's Susan Steelman Bragato Scholarships. Scholarship recipients, who must be a graduating senior from a charter high school that is a member of the California Charter Schools Association, must also reflect a proven ability to succeed at a college or university level and demonstrate need for financial aid.
Here is what Iris wrote in response to the application prompt, "Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?"
Chatter, rolling luggage and voices on the speaker were all I heard. Air that felt like the steam seconds after I hop out of the shower mixed with an explosion of emotions were bursting in my mind. I was eager to meet a part of the world I had never before, so I stood in line, amazed at the fact that Justin Beiber was playing on every TV at the El Salvador airport.
Deciding to make this 10 day trip from Oakland, California to Usulutan, El Salvador was a risk for me, but I jumped at the opportunity. The media aren't always trustworthy with information, they generalize and aren't always positive especially about Latin American countries. My dad bought into this lie telling me that I had nothing to do there and that it was too dangerous, he only signed the notarized letter allowing me to go a day before my trip. Now that I'm back, safe and as more of a leader, I've learned not to trust media and stereotypes because you might miss out on a great opportunity.
Back home, material possessions come naturally to us so their values are lost. My ten day stay in El Salvador made me realize how not everyone even has the pleasure to drink purified water. Gallons of water were set up for us, the visitors, while the community members drank from different water. It was segregated which frustrated me, but at the same time made me appreciate the act of generosity. A local group called CEPAE, Center for Popular Education and Expressive Arts, taught me so much about what could be possible. Youth were not only supporting one another but supporting their communities by having days to teach adults how to read, write and do math. Not many adults there have the pleasure of saying "I finished high school" and the dedication of these kids to help out amazed me. Because of this I am inspired to help those in need as much as I can. While there, I walked a 5-7 mile trail from the main street to a community that the Salvadorean youth take Monday through Friday to attend high school. The roads weren't concrete; they were mud. It was a puzzle to cross, not knowing if your foot will sink or support your body while you take another step. I understood that education shouldn't be taken for granted like many of the kids in the United States do because it is a privilege way too valuable.
So I'm back at the airport where this experience began. An experience never to be forgotten because as I was out of my comfort zone, I knew I was growing as a person. Emotions burst in my mind once again. I was excited not only because I would see my loved ones again but because I knew what Oakland is capable of and I want to be that push that it needs to flourish. Both communities have more in common than I expected, both have striving kids that only need a little push to become the change the world needs. This trip had ended, but I now understood that another one had begun, in another dangerous city, the city to see me grow and now apply my knowledge: Oakland.