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'I found my village'

DATE: Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"HCC has helped shape me, helped me grow and flourish, as well as accomplish impossible things"

Student orator Jonathan Mendez gives a speech at Commencement 2017.

On Sat., May 27,  student orator Jonathan Mendez received his associate degree in liberal arts from Holyoke Communty College. In his Commencement 2017 address, Mendez talked about his early struggles, the power of music, and how HCC prepared him for the next stage of his life. Below is the full text of his speech. 

Good morning graduates, faculty, staff, administrators, and President Royal. Before I begin, I would like to dedicate this speech to someone special, who has inspired me to embrace who I am and who's also graduating today, Chloe E. Soto.

I stand at this podium today to tell you a story, my story. Being here at this moment was a challenge, but not as challenging as the story I'm about to tell you. You see, I did not have a normal childhood. By the age of 6 I had suffered physical abuse, trauma, neglect, rejection, and misdiagnosis. Because of this, I was removed from my family and sent away to various hospitals and institutions where I suffered even more trauma and rejection. I was brought up by staff, counselors, and therapists who were now the authoritative figures in my life.

As I was forced to live in these places, I found ways of coping on my own. When I could escape for a moment, all I would do was listen to music. I would memorize the lyrics and lose myself in them. I would imagine myself performing each song on stage in front of an audience, and it was the most exhilarating experience. Being able to shut out the harsh and complicated world I was stuck in and to imagine a reality where I could show the real me was life saving. The idea of opening up, letting down the walls I had created to protect myself was thrilling.

After the many institutions I was passed through, I arrived at a place where I was no longer an object or a number. I was suddenly treated like a human being. It took me sometime to trust the staff, but just the thought that someone valued me, gave me the realization, no, the revelation, that I was someone, that I had agency. Something clicked like clockwork inside me. I started to turn myself around, and I started realizing that not everything about me was negative and that I had power.

The transition from institutional regiment and rules to the real world was another challenge for me. I was sent back to live with my dysfunctional family and suddenly I needed to fend for myself. This was a family I no longer knew. They themselves needed help and support. I, once again, was rejected. I was so terrified of being criminalized and sent to jail that I became tough on myself.

This journey taught me to strive for more and not give up. I struggled to fend for myself, and found shelter with people I hardly knew. I became strong, and, along the way, I developed a support system. Throughout this stage of my life, I found people like my literature teacher, Susanne; my uncle, Junior; and my best friend, Yady, who helped motivate me to further my education and stay focused on what's important. I began to understand the true meaning of responsibility, and finally, to learn how to do things and take care of myself. I'm still struggling, but this time I have control of myself. I have the power.

Here's what I know: Who you were in the past is just as important as who you are in the present and future. Your story is what defines who you are; it has brought you to this very moment. Never be ashamed of your story and when you get the chance to tell it, be proud of it. I'm here to tell you, no matter what you've been through, what your trials or tribulations were, you decided to make something of yourself and accomplish your dreams and goals.

For many of us here today, we have been through so much when all the odds were against us. We overcame challenges that have kept others from graduating and from succeeding in life. We refused to allow adversity to define us and to tell us who we ought to become. We screamed, we cried, we slaved over essays and mathematics. We stayed up all night to finish our assignments on time while juggling our personal lives, taking care of children or grandparents, working at our full time/part time or multiple jobs all at the same time. But more importantly, we fought. And we fought hard to be here, on this day.

As we continue to move forward with our education or wherever our journey takes us from here, it is true that we must work hard and take care of our responsibilities. However, it is equally important to take care of ourselves. Our minds, our bodies and our spirits are very important. As Mimsy would tell us, you need your attention as well.

I have broken chains and boundaries I didn't think I could. I've become a stronger person, and I have found my voice. It's true what they say, "It takes a village" and at HCC, I found my village. HCC has helped shape me, helped me grow and flourish, as well as accomplish impossible things, and, because of this, I am grateful. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I am proud of myself, and I will continue to grow and empower those around me, to aspire to be better, because that is what HCC taught me. It makes me sad to leave, but it's okay, because I've accomplished what I needed to here, and I am ready for the next stage in my life.

Thank you Holyoke Community College. I will always be grateful.

PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Student orator Jonathan Mendez addresses students, staff, faculty and guests at Commencement 2017 on Sat., May 27, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.