"The best experiences I've had here are the people who are willing to hear my side of the story and still believe in me. All of the teachers I've met, all of the students I've met.
At quick glance, the tattoos on her forearms look like strings of ancient symbols. Closer inspection reveals them to be English words spelled using the phonetic alphabet, like you'd see in a dictionary.
On her right, it says, roughly: /im-‘paü(-e)r/ vb
On her left: /i-‘kwal-et-ē/ n
What do they mean?
She wants you to ask.
"This one says, ‘empower,'" she replies, pointing to her right arm. "It's the first tattoo I ever got when I was 18, and it's from the first dictionary my mother ever gave me. And this one is ‘equality.' I really like the phonetic alphabet because you have to sound it out, and whenever someone says, ‘what is that?' I have to explain. It always starts a conversation. Like ‘empower.' It's a verb. It's an active thing you have to constantly do, and so whenever I look at myself, this is on my skin. I can feel it. It's there. Constantly."
Great Barrington, Mass.
Activities, community service, employment:
CommITTED Club, HCC Latino International Students Association (LISA) Club; Co-founder, ROAR (Resist Oppression Act Responsibly); Railroad Street Youth Project (Great Barrington); traveled to Honduras and Haiti as volunteer with nonprofit Pure Water for the World; babysitter
Awards and honors:
2017 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship; Phi Theta Kappa honor society; Green Key Honor Society; HCC Scholarship; Jeanne Hatch Award for Public Speaking
Favorite course or teacher:
Ismet Ozkilic was the first teacher who really taught me how to write, and his ideas just inspired me. And then Maura Henry for history. She taught me how to do research properly. I had them both for a Learning Community class: "Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them: Chocolate, Sugar & Coffee." And Diane Beers is amazing. She's also a history professor and she taught me to how to think critically about a concept by acknowledging that I don't know everything.
Why did you choose HCC?
Because HCC is renowned as a transfer college. It's also financially affordable and the teachers here are top level.
What's been your most meaningful experience at HCC?
I really think it's the people I've met. It's the people who see me for me, who see all of the difficulties that my body inherently creates, as a person of color, as a queer woman, and still recognizing that I have abilities, that I have the ability to achieve, to find opportunities. The best experiences I've had here are the people who are willing to hear my side of the story and still believe in me. All of the teachers I've met, all of the students I've met. They're really such a diverse body of different backgrounds, from being relatively wealthy to having barely anything and working two jobs and still going to school with two kids — I met someone like that who still had the energy to speak to me with optimism.
What is your favorite thing about HCC?
Just the experience. I'm living in the Five College area, and HCC is part of that. There's so much young energy compared to where I'm from. I'm feeling super motivated and feeling like I have projects and opportunities I can achieve. Like do a bunch of rallies, or speak about my mind toward activism. I feel like I can do it here and in this space, in this area.
What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome?
Self-doubt, a lot. There's a consistent, low-current self-doubt. Because of the political sphere, because of my family's background, because of X,Y and Z, because of my parents not knowing at all what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. Living by myself and having to work. I'm living with family friends but I'm still having to work and pay rent. Being in charge of my bills. My family made sure I knew how to do that at least and saving and stuff, but my obstacle was really learning how to be independent and challenging myself.
What's the most important thing you've learned at HCC?
That there are still institutions out there that care about students who seem like they don't have much going for them.
Why is education important to you?
Education is power. It allows me to recognize my own consciousness. Being able to access new levels of education has made me realize what the point of living is, you know, finding purpose. Those who do not have education are easily manipulated by environmental factors and those who are more educated than they are. So it's really just being able to take control of my academics, of my future, of what I determine is success.
What are your plans?
After HCC, I plan to transfer either Smith College or Mount Holyoke College. I want to go into anthropology, so I can learn about cultures and how to cross borders that I might not feel comfortable in. I might might minor in entrepreneurship so I can attempt to change this nation. That's my dream. These skills I'm building are primarily about activism, community organizing, communications. I want to be intersectional. i want to be able to constantly learn and develop new tools and skills. I really want to be in a think tank. I love creating new ideas.
Is there some agency or organization out there now where you could see yourself working?
I just really love Railroad Street Youth Project. I love the mentality, the ability to have space and time to be creative, to feel supported and accepted when you fail. I'm not only accessing formal education, I'm accessing competency based education, which is skill development. I would also like to learn how to become more spiritual, feel better about myself. So that's Railroad Street Youth Project and the space of empowerment that they create there
PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Kiana Estime