First-Generation Student Treks Unfamiliar Ground

 

By Carla Juarez, HOLA Development Assistant

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Sixteen-year-old Jeanette Mestas attends HOLA’s PAT high school program to learn about her place in the world outside of her high school life. At HOLA, she gains insights about her character, goals, and passions. A junior in high school now, Jeanette has been coming to HOLA since her middle school days, delving into as many programs as she could join. From an early age, she has been a curious, adventurous, albeit shy child.

Her fondest memories are of family trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she would visit her grandparents’ home in the outskirts of the city. Remembering the abundance of fruits growing on trees and hills upon hills lining the horizon, she gushes about the incredible landscape. As a child, she would sneak around on her own “every single day to climb the rock wall” nearby.  Whenever she would come back to Los Angeles, she felt nostalgic for the countryside. “I really love the outdoors,” she emphasized. So when the opportunity came to spend a summer backpacking and rock climbing through the California Sierra Alpine with HOLA, Jeanette was immediately interested.

For over fifteen years, HOLA has partnered with Outward Bound, a national education nonprofit that challenges people through learning expeditions. Outward Bound is the leading provider of experiential and outdoor education programs for youth and adults. Through their Pinnacle Scholars program, full scholarships and free equipment are provided to underserved youth. HOLA has been able to place 1-4 students per year in their California and Pacific Northwest courses over the summer. The courses are physically challenging, carrying 40 pounds backpacking, trekking in the rain and cold, relying on learned knowledge of the wilderness, and walking miles upon miles before setting up campsites. Jeanette participated this year and thought that she had prepared herself for the physical challenges ahead of her. She soon realized, once out in the wilderness, that she faced a whole other set of challenges by entering a new social environment.

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It was the first time that Jeanette was away from her family. She not only felt homesick, but also alienated from her peers after arriving at the airport. Everyone around her was engaging in intense conversations, talking about their past experiences backpacking and rock climbing in other parts of the state and country. For Jeanette, however, this was her first time taking on such an expedition. Although her peers seemed friendly, easy going and energetic, it was as if they were speaking another language completely unfamiliar to her. Her trip to the site was a fairly quiet one, as she still felt uncomfortable opening up to strangers she thought had more varied experiences than her. And, in the back of her mind, she was still thinking about home.

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Luckily, the natural setting became the perfect place for Jeanette to find her voice again. Though interactions with her peers started off stiff, she found time to think inwardly about her role in the team and her place in the world. She recalls smiling, “As we were hiking, I’d remember those stories my mom would tell me of working in the fields at a young age - my age now! I was shocked and surprised cause I actually started to feel what she felt in those fields. I thought, this is hard work! Her childhood was different from mine, and I felt a stronger connection to her, hiking through the peaks.” Her mother’s stories of immigration also served as sources of inspiration and strength for Jeanette as she hiked and climbed a total of seven miles on the first day. With her newfound source of determination, Jeanette felt more confident that she could conquer not only physical obstacles but social ones as well.

She no longer questioned whether her experiences would be interesting or cool enough. When the group found themselves lost, Jeanette remained calm and offered positive solutions to get back on the trail. She de-escalated a peer’s frustration with her quiet demeanor, and kept the mood light and fun. Before this expedition, Jeanette wouldn’t have imagined this of herself. Just days before she had remained in the back of the group, and now she found herself offering advice and finding similar interests with her newfound friends.

 
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Feeling homesick is a tough hurdle for any teenager from a tight-knit family, but Jeanette found unique power in her experiences, and her parents’ support helped her find the confidence to finish the Outward Bound course. It took time to reflect about her own abilities, background, and experiences before Jeanette was able to feel comfortable sharing about herself. In sharing, she found her journey, both inward and outward, to be more rewarding for her future. She imagines herself as a self-reliant college student, studying medicine at Soka University of America.

October 4, 2018