Learning to be an American, one generation at a time

It’s been more than 20 years since my daughter weathered an early identity crisis after I broke the news to her: we are Americans. 

“I am not!” she said indignantly. My three-year-old did not understand exactly what an American was, but she didn’t care for the sound of it — perhaps because it sounded a bit like hurricane or captain, as in “pirate captain.”

“Oh, but you are,” I said. “You were born right here in Liberal, and that is in Kansas, and Kansas is in the United States of America. That’s the name of our country: America. So, you are an American. And your little brother is, too.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” muttered the almost-two-year-old.  He wasn’t going to go quietly into this strange-sounding category of “American.” A modified session on U.S. history was in order. We started with simple things: colors, stars, a map. A demonstration of the Pledge of Allegiance was a big hit. 

A few days later, my children had reconciled themselves to their nationality and were, in fact, excited about celebrating its birthday. It helped that celebrations include cake and ice cream, balloons, all the basic ingredients needed for preschoolers to have fun.

This would be a minor, somewhat amusing anecdote, end of story — unless you stop to remember my grandparents. 

They, too, were Americans. For them, however, the designation required more than birth and childhood explanations. They earned the name the old-fashioned way, by homing in on a goal that required courage for the duration.

Grandpa and Grandma Seth emigrated to this country from India in the mid-1950s. They left a prosperous home near Calcutta, complete with house servants and the special privileges and status of English colonial life, to live simply in Peoria, Ill., in a walk-up apartment that boasted no luxuries.

My grandfather, the CEO of a steam train rail car plant, took up hourly-wage work at a department store warehouse. My grandmother, who’d whiled away the hot Indian days with knitting, mah-jongg and charity work, learned to make club sandwiches in the store cafeteria. 

One memorable day in late summer, Grandma and her twin sons (one of them my father) made an anxious trip to the federal courthouse in Peoria. Dad, a teenager at the time, recalls wearing a bow tie and sport coat, both specially purchased for the occasion. My grandmother had even parted with the dollars for a rare new dress. They’d lived in the U.S. for five years, and were ready to become citizens.

Grandma was nervous. Her sons had drilled her on American history facts at the kitchen table, and she had carefully followed all the rules to keep their family paperwork in order. Still, the prospect of failing the exam was frightening.

I never knew my grandmother, yet I am affected deeply at the thought of her worries after she had already traveled so far. When she boarded an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, she had no solid picture of what lay on the other shore. She stretched herself far past the points of comfort to reach for something not visible  All of this, she did for the sake of her childrens’ futures. 

She placed her hopes in the destination she had selected. America, she knew, was the place where people had a fair chance to make their lives better. It was the home of freedom and democracy, capitalism, honest government. (Anyone who’s lived in a place like India, where you have to bribe the postal workers to mail your letters, knows the value of that.) Surely, her hopes would not be in vain, her courage would not be wasted.

No one took pictures that day, nor was there a big celebration when Eileen Viola Seth, Robert Paul Thomas Seth and Richard Peter Trevor Seth became citizens of the United States. In one sense, that long-ago day passed inconsequentially, just one more set of hours that holds the life-happenings of millions of people. 

My grandparents are dead now, passed away from a life much humbler than their beginnings. You can’t say that’s the end of the story, though, because my life and my brother’s life and our cousins’ lives and the lives of our children, and, someday, their children’s too, are a testament to the rightness of my grandmother’s choice. 

Our ability to live in a house with air conditioning, to live in a town with paved streets and a police force; our freedom to worship, think and speak as we choose; the good meals we enjoy thanks to the hard work we perform; the ease to have fun, to feel amusement as we instruct our offspring about the meaning of the word “American;” all of it, we owe to her and my grandfather and their courage to leave the old life for something best described as a challenge. Certainly, it was no cakewalk.

Yet my grandmother’s fears on citizenship exam day were misplaced: she had learned American history, she had worked hard, and she loved this country. The judge shook her hand and welcomed her in.

It was, after all, hers: the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Two-decade postscript:

When I wrote this newspaper column as a young mother, I could not have imagined the roiling sense of upheaval that marks Independence Day 2020. The two children I indoctrinated with classic immigrant patriotism were soon joined by a little sister. And those three young biracial Black Americans have navigated complications that far exceeded the simplicity of the stories they grew up hearing. In the United States of 1998, we had just begun to grasp the technological transformation that was soon to come. We (mostly) trusted our government, and while ideological and political differences were marked, the young mother I was felt certain her children would continue to ascend in a changing, improving society. After all, the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, before my own birth.

Fast-forward to a 21st-century summer marred by COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, the caging of small children whose parents hoped only to replicate an American story like my own family’s, and uneasiness about a Presidential election that might or might not be decided by foreign agents. As I woke on July 4 and realized that yes, it really is Independence Day, I thought of my Seth grandparents as I always do on the nation’s  birthday. And I asked myself the question: Is this column still true?

Certainly, the origin story is true. My grandparents’ optimistic beliefs about the new country they would come to call home were, perhaps, a bit on the rosy side. It was, after all, 1954, the height of the Eisenhower/J.Edgar Hoover propaganda push to frame Americans’ sense of self and purpose in the world. Our family fortune changed dramatically when India gained independence. The Anglo-Indian (sometimes called “Eurasian”) Diaspora was unavoidable, and I’m thankful the Seths chose the United States.

When we reconcile the present with history, and our own evolving understanding of historic events, some things remain unchanged. Love and courage, thankfully, are two of the strongest.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  


Clothe yourself in Social Courage

October, the month when I begin to listen for wild geese migrating, brings an echo of loss. Low grey skies create a sounding bell for the calls of birds fleeing blizzards; they also reflect an inevitable gloom, the descending specter of less sunlight and darker moods.

Autumn is when we feel the steady tick of time passing. Summer is over, winter is on its way, and growing season has come to a close. There’s no tricking a hard freeze.

It’s time to pull on an extra sweater, take a deep breath, and be brave.

Brave, because this time of year is when we reckon with mortality. We can’t avoid it. The trees offer testimony of bare-bones truth. Why would we assume that humans, whose lives are shorter than the average oak, are granted immunity from the forces that erode mountains?

How people handle loss is tied to how we connect with others. It is peculiar and treacherous territory. On the one hand, it’s as ordinary as dirt: everybody carries private grief. Making too much of yours can cloy. When I yearn for the dog I just relinquished to new owners or lament the mostly empty nest at my house, I can almost hear Auntie Sergeant in my head, issuing a crisp corrective: “Some people don’t have homes. Some people don’t have children to send to college! Toughen up, buttercup!” My sensible alter-ego is right — sorrow is nothing special.

But as Tolstoy observed in his novel Anna Karenina (whose title character is the all-time champion of melancholy) while all happy families are pretty much the same, every unhappy family finds its own unique way to explore misery. Can a person whose geriatric parent just died identify with the pain of a 25-year-old whose mother fought cancer and lost? If you say you’re upset about a favorite chair claimed by dry rot, do I trump your tale of woe with a story about termites?

In the face of such quandaries, professionals offer tips. Maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder — the wintertime blues — that has us down. Or perhaps we ought to talk about National Suicide Awareness Month? Be aware, feelings of discouragement are not the same as clinical depression. Instructors at the community college where I work take the halfway mark of the semester as a cue to issue warnings about “staying on top of your studies.” Young adult students, whose brains are still in the final stages of development, might not be sure why they feel downhearted.

The big box stores see the start of autumn as a gold rush: Halloween, hunting season, Thanksgiving, football, and Christmas shopping all provide profits galore. The retailers are not wrong, if what counts is dollars. We all know, however, down in the roots of our being, that money is not what matters when that cold and lonely wind blows.

For me, October is a grab bag of emotion. It is the time of year I met my next-door neighbor, who became my husband 26 years ago. It’s also the time of year when my oldest child died. This year, the month has already brought gain and loss, gold and grit. I want to photograph every bright red leaf I notice turning in the wind. I want to curl up beneath the softest blanket in the house, and go to sleep. I’m pretty sure I am not alone in this back-and-forth response to the arrival of autumn.

At work, the month brings what I think of as “Judgement Day,” our accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission. Being evaluated is never comfortable, even when you know you have done your level best. The stress is counterbalanced by the excitement about our new buildings on campus — the Colvin Family Center for Allied Health on the northwest side of Circle Drive, and the Sharp Family Champions Center on the southeast. Both are nearly complete, and the altered silhouette kind of takes my breath away when I approach campus.

That’s the thing about seasons. They change. And even though we might find familiar themes, be those in the form of pumpkins or plaid, no two years are exactly the same.

What memories mark this season for you? What do you savor? When does sadness gust into the corners of your heart, like wind scattering dry leaves?

As SCCC’s inclusiveness & civility mover team launches another year of work, we’re interested in those moments, when loss collides with forward motion, calling for courage and grace. More than the distinctions that divide us, all people share common experiences as we move through life. Let’s keep good company with one another along the way.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  


To the stars … one spoonful at a time

In my elementary-school years, Kansas Day represented a specific set of craft projects. The sunflower. The meadowlark. The cottonwood tree. The buffalo. As we advanced, we learned the meaning of our state motto: “Ad astra per aspera” — that is, “To the stars through difficulties.”

Yet we heard little mention of Kansas’ most stellar historical aspects. Its 1861 entrance to the U.S. as a free state tipped the balance for a nation marred by slavery. High ideals didn’t stop there. Women had an eight-year head start at the polls in the Sunflower State, while national politicians dithered about giving women the vote. Kansas led the way for workers’ rights, establishing the workman’s compensation system, the city-council system designed to eliminate mafia control and graft, and, perhaps most famously, the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to desegregation of schools.

Our state, as the young folks would say, is badass.


At the same time, we have somehow managed to retain the wholesome kindheartedness that I ached for during my five years in Chicago. I missed the circular horizon. I missed the stars. I missed being able to take people at face value, a social navigation method that actually works in my home state.

The welcoming nature of Kansans is well-known in points far from the geographical center of North America — yep, that’s another Kansas claim to fame. One of our international student alumni at SCCC, a student from Japan, based her decision to study abroad on an advisor’s advice to “go to Kansas, or maybe Nebraska. People there are friendly and kind.” Sachie Shibachev liked it so well she stayed, married, had a child, and has made a home in Meade, where she fulfills her original goal of working as a nurse.

In Liberal, famously named for the generosity of early homesteader Seymour Rogers and his wayside water well, we continue to live out this ethic of open arms for the weary soul. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded the population of foreign-born individuals in Seward County as 23%, the highest rate for all counties in the nation. With residents from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Sudan, Laos, Thailand, and a smattering of European nations, thanks in part to our robust international student population, it is truly possible to meet the world right here at home.

SCCC will celebrate all of this — the history of forward thinking, the concern for those left on the margins, the opportunity to ascend through hard work and a neighborly welcome — at a potluck birthday party for our state on January 29. From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., tables in the SCCC Library will be laden with delicious dishes that reflect our state.

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 2.19.34 PM.pngWe’ll serve homemade chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes, chili with cinnamon rolls, and bierocks — all familiar favorites of Kansas natives. Authentic Mexican food, from fried tacos to flautas, and even tamales if we’re lucky will provide a taste of the good things we enjoy from across our southern border. International and vegetarian options will round out the options, including Indian samosas, Greek Baklava, Thai and Filipino foods, real Chinese, and more.

The venture reminds me of another core “welcome to Liberal” moment I experienced after moving here in 1993. Halfway across the world, the African nation of Somalia had collapsed, and families fled with next to nothing. Somehow, a large group of Somali young people ended up in Liberal to work at the packing plant. These were men and women barely out of their teens, well-educated, with expectations of becoming engineers or surgeons — but thanks to politics, they had to start over.

Through a friendship forged at the gym, my husband wrangled an invitation for himself and his reporter wife to an Eid feast at a rental home on the northeast side of Liberal. We arrived 30 minutes late because I couldn’t decide whether or not to wear a scarf over my hair to show respect to our hosts, as well as communicating my own respectability. We needn’t have worried. The men had just finished slaughtering the goat as we stepped into the living room, where a table cloth on the floor served as a dining table, and the women proffered cups of hot cardamom tea and bananas.

Hours later, we sat cross-legged on the floor to share a feast as promised. At one point in the evening, our hosts had paused to pray on mats facing Mecca. The feeling in the room was one of dutiful respect for tradition, the same way visiting relatives will attend Sunday morning church with aging parents, even if their own belief system has shifted.

I don’t remember the goat stew itself, though I marveled at the repurposing of Mexican tortillas as bread for this African fare, and the Somali fondness for super-sweet orange soda. What stands out most is the laughter as we ate together. The willingness to share stories that painted a vivid picture of lives not unlike ours — family living arrangements, school days, the difficulties of meeting parental expectations, worry about grandparents’ health.

Decades later, I often wonder what became of our young Somali neighbors. After a year or two of bone-wearying work and communal living, most had moved on to enroll in college and resume their expected life trajectory. Our nation and state have weathered terror attacks, a second Gulf War and ongoing military struggles. The TSA now exists. And on our southern border and in coffee shops across town, tempers frequently flare as Kansans debate the current state of immigration.

We grapple with difficulties, indeed. The stars, though, are still there. Every night, in our small spot on the vast High Plains, we are free to look up and see the same lights shining that showed the way for the original Kanza people, the settlers and migrants that followed, and glimmer across continents.

In the meantime, let’s break bread together. Let’s sit down at the Kansas table for a meal that nourishes our bodies and offers company that can feed our minds as well. To love your neighbor, to share what you have, to smile at a stranger — that’s the Kansas way.


rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusivity & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  


We the Future

Ismael Nazario - Munk One

Ismael Nazario

Ismael Nazario is a formerly incarcerated prison reform, social justice and human rights advocate. He works as a database systems analyst for the Fortune Society, helping those at high risk for recidivism from Rikers reintegrate into society after release. Before his work at the Fortune Society, Ismael worked with court-involved youth. He became passionate about helping young people and was inspired to stand up for these disenfranchised voices. Ismael has worked with numerous projects such as the Raise the Age campaign, Banning Solitary Confinement, and Rikers Reform. In 2015, he was recognized for his contributions and received the Peabody Award for Community Activism. Through his firsthand experience within the criminal justice system, Ismael focuses his work on numerous social justice and human rights injustices, not only to shed light on these issues, but to encourage others to take action and become a part of the solution.

Amanda Gorman - Kate DeCiccio

Amanda Gorman

The ‘next great figure of poetry in the US’, 19-year-old Amanda Gorman is a published author and the first ever Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America. She has spoken around the country from the UN to the Library of Congress, alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hillary Clinton Her first poetry book, “The One For Whom Food Is Not Enough”, was published in 2015 by Pemanship Books. She is Founder and Executive Director of One Pen One Page, which promotes literacy through free creative writing programming for underserved youth. She is a Harvard junior in the top of her class, and writes for the New York Times  student newsletter The Edit.

Amanda Nguyen - Shepard Fairey

Amanda Nguyen

In 2013, Amanda Nguyen was raped while she was in college in Massachusetts. She chose not to press charges immediately after police officers informed her there was a 15-year statute of limitations for rape in Massachusetts and she could press charges at a later date when she was ready. She had a rape kit performed and discovered that, if she did not report the crime to law enforcement, her rape kit would be destroyed after 6 months if an extension request was not filed — but was not given official instructions on how to file those papers. Nguyen met other survivors with similar stories and founded Rise, a nonprofit organization which is aimed to protect the civil rights of sexual assault and rape survivors. The organization was named Rise to “remind us that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can rise up and change the world.” Rise’s goal is to pass a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights in all 50 U.S. states as well as on the national level.

Isra Chaker - Kate DeCiccio

Isra Chaker

Isra Chaker is a certified project manager, campaigns and advocacy expert, social justice activist, and public speaker. She serves as the Refugee Campaign Lead at one of the leading international NGOs in the world, Oxfam, where she advocates for vulnerable people such as refugees, asylees, temporary protected status (TPS) holders, and opposes discriminatory policies. Personally impacted by the Muslim Ban, and not able to reunite with her extended family in Syria, Isra is passionate in her work for families and a firm believer in positive social change. She says “Change is On Us”. She created a social media platform @IsraSpeaks to empower people around the world to use their personal narrative to become engaged and active citizens who use their voice. Choosing a life of purpose to break stereotypes of Muslim women because of harassment and discrimination she endured growing up is the reason she is a powerful, eloquent and successful speaker.

Leah the Activist - Rommy Torrico

Leah the Activist

In Washington D.C., in front of an estimated 30,000 people, 12-year-old activist Leah from Miami spoke about what it’s like to “live in constant fear” that ICE will take her mother: “I am here today because the government is separating and detaining refugee parents and children at the border who are looking for safety. Our government also continues to separate U.S. citizen children like me from their parents. This is evil! It needs to stop! I live in the constant fear of losing my mom to deportation. My mom is strong, beautiful, and brave. She is also a person who taught me how to speak up when I see things that aren’t fair. ICE wants to take away my mom from me. I don’t want to live with this fear. It’s scary. I can’t sleep. I can’t study. I am stressed. I am afraid that they will take my mom away while she is at work, out driving or at home. We cannot allow them to keep hurting families, communities, and children. I know that together, we can make things better for families and kids. I want to be an example to other kids who are going through the same problems as me. I want to tell kids at the border and all over the country not to give up and fight for their families. We are all human! And deserve to be loved and cared for! We are children! Our government has to do the right thing and stop separating us from our parents. And stop locking us up. I won’t give up fighting for the right to stay with my mom. I am not asking for a favor! It is my right to stay as a child! To live in peace with my mother and the rest of my family!

Lindsey Amer - Rommy Torrico

Lindsay Amer

Lindsay is a queer activist, artist, and storyteller based (also born and raised) in NYC. They are most well-known for creating & hosting their indie webseries, Queer Kid Stuff, for which they were named a Rising Star by GLAAD and a Queero by them.us. They obtained their BS from Northwestern University in theater and gender studies and their MA from Queen Mary University of London for theatre and performance studies. When they’re not completely overwhelmed by adulthood, they’re probably plotting ways to overthrow the patriarchy while playing their ukulele and cooking for their partner.

Lydia X. Z. Brown - Kate DeCiccio

Lydia X. Z. Brown

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a disability justice advocate, organizer, and writer whose work has largely focused on violence against multiply-marginalized disabled people, especially institutionalization, incarceration, and policing. While an undergraduate student at Georgetown University, Lydia co-founded the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective for intersectional disability justice organizing, led multiple campaigns to reform university policies on disability access that led to creation of a dedicated pool of funding for sign language interpretation and real-time captioning as well as an access coordinator position responsible for public and non-academic programming, single-handedly founded and coordinated the first Lecture and Performance Series on Disability Justice, served two terms as Undersecretary for Disability Affairs with the Georgetown University Students Association, spurred the university to convene a Disability Justice Working Group, provided training to numerous student groups and university departments and offices, and served on the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities’ consumer advisory council. Lydia is now a Public Interest Law Scholar at Northeastern University School of Law, where they serve as an active member of the Committee Against Institutional Racism, the Transgender Justice Task Force, and the Faculty Appointments Committee, and are a founding core collective member of the Disability Justice Caucus.

Paul S. John - Munk One

Paul S. John

Paul is a social justice advocate working endlessly to serve his community. As Base Building Lead Organizer at Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, he leads the organization’s efforts to build its membership and communicate its strategies and initiatives. As Membership and Recruitment chair of the NYC chapter of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Paul recruits and retains young activists in engaging ways for the chapter to further build next generation leaders to end anti-Black racism and systemic violence. As Manager of Mayoral Outreach at Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a program of the gun violence prevention organization Everytown for Gun Safety, Paul works with current and former mayors across the country to amplify their voices in support of legislation that will reduce gun violence.

Winter BreeAnne - Shepard Fairey

Winter BreeAnne

Winter BreeAnne is an unstoppable 17-year-old advocate who started her own nonprofit, become a youth ambassador for TOMS, and named one of Riverside, California’s Most Remarkable Teens. Labeled a budding activist, Winter says she’s just doing her civic duty. She wants to make a difference in the world and is using her voice to do so.

“I never saw myself as an activist, I just saw myself as playing my part in shaping the world that I want to see for our future,” she tells Teen Vogue. “Young people should have a say in our future and to some that looks like activism. [Activism] is literally just voicing your opinions, or if you can’t voice your opinions, using whatever gifts and talents you have to add to society and add to the world.”

Winter began her advocacy at 15 with the launch of her organization Black Is Lit. What began as an Instagram page meant to fill a void in black representation on the platform quickly expanded into a passion project. She toured elementary schools, promoting education in youth politics and the importance of voting.

Winter spearheaded one of the largest student demonstrations in U.S. history. As a national student leader for the group Women’s March Youth Empower, Winter helped organize the #ENOUGH: National Student Walkout in March. The demonstration took place exactly one month after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and more than a million students in all 50 states participated.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez - Shepard Fairey

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

Earth Guardians Youth Director Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, (his first name pronounced ‘Shoe-Tez-Caht’) recently turned 18. He’s an indigenous climate activist, hip-hop artist, and powerful voice on the front lines of a global youth-led environmental movement. At the early age of six Xiuhtezcatl began speaking around the world, from the Rio+20 United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro, to addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York city. He has worked locally to get pesticides out of parks, coal ash contained, and moratoriums on fracking in his state and is currently a lead plaintiff in a youth-led lawsuit against the federal government for their failure to protect the atmosphere for future generations.  Xiuhtezcatl has traveled across the nation and to many parts of the world educating his generation about the state of the planet they are inheriting and inspiring youth into action to protect the planet. Earth Guardian has grown to hundreds of crews in over 50 countries. 

Rambunctious student and the school of kindness

Dr. Maria Fe Laguitan

From her office in the TRiO/Student Support Services center, Dr. Maria Fe Laguitan advises SCCC students on class schedules and job prospects. She also offers tough love delivered in no-nonsense edicts.

“You must not throw your opportunities away!” she might announce, followed by, “realize how valuable you are!”

The words may sound fierce, but the sentiment beneath them is tender.

Maria Fe Laguitan2When we look at student success in terms of empathy, it’s good to know this generation is actually kinder than previous ones. Maybe because of bullying and social media, or things they have seen in the news like 9/11, but they are more likely to be kind to their peers. 


Laguitan speaks from experience. Growing up in the Philippines, she saw university education as “a rare commodity served from some people, people with money and privileges,” she recalled. Furthermore, as the youngest of five children in her family, Laguitan was expected to stay in the home and care for an older brother with profound physical disabilities.

“My brother was bedridden and completely dependent on others,” she said. “He needed help to eat, to bathe and use the toilet, and that was my duty, to care for him.”

The task was challenging for the young Laguitan, who was, she says, “the rambunctious one in my family.” Despite her mother’s reluctance, Laguitan continued high school studies in secret. An American aid worker, Elizabeth Schultz, encouraged the girl to take personal responsibility for her own education and  even paid school fees for her to attend classes at the private high school. By the time she was old enough for college, her brother had died and Laguitan was free to pursue higher ed.

There was just one problem: no money.

“There was no way for me to go,” she said. “My father had died when I was 11 years old, and my mother could not provide the money. She said, ‘no, no, you’ can’t.’ I was crushed, heartbroken.”

It was Laguitan’s middle sister who came to the rescue.

“Her name is Liberty, and she is the kindest of us all,” she said. “She had been saving her money for years, and she gave it to me, 2,000 pesos, and said, ‘Go to Manila, go to college.’”

Liberty’s empathy and generosity fueled Laguitan’s determination. By the time she arrived at the university, most of the spots were filled, “but they said, ‘there’s political science still open,’ and I took it. I didn’t care what I studied, I just wanted to be in college and better myself.”

Over time, Laguitan earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Following her mother and sisters, she relocated to the United States where she continued her education and professional development. While she’s proud of the academic achievements, she counts life lessons as equally valuable.

“At the multicultural conference I attended last week, the speaker talked a lot about empathy, and why it is so important for us to connect with our students,” she said. “Until you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it’s hard to make a difference.”

The advice echoes what Liberty often told her younger sister, when the two earned money working as nurse and certified nurse aide respectively.

“That was how I got started when I came to the U.S., working in nursing homes and hospitals,” Laguitan recalled. “Liberty is just so kind to everyone, she didn’t get angry when patients would yell or call her names. She would say, ‘They’re just in pain. It’s our job to care for them and to make them smile.’”

“Sometimes these senior people would throw poop at me, and then I would remember what Liberty said,” Laguitan recalled. “We may think we’re so small, so tiny, but if our hearts are kind enough, it changes things.”

That same motivation fuels Laguitan’s work at SCCC and TRiO. During her years working at the SCCC Colvin Adult Learning Center, she sharpened her focus on helping newcomers gain solid English skills, become literate, and move on to college work. She applies that experience to advising and encouraging students on the main campus.

“Cultural barriers and individual stories can divide people, and it’s our job to get past that,” she said. “Our students need to know we will back them, we will open doors and give them a sense of belonging. School should be the place where they feel safe and confident. People showed me that empathy, and now it’s my turn to pass it along.”