Mi Experiencia

Adriel Poo Armas shares his story alongside fellow panelists (left to right) Natalie Sedeño Vega, Sabrina Pham and Sophia Kennan. Wednesday, September 28, 2022.

Across the United States, Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. At UTC, students came together to not only celebrate culture, but also share their experiences as Hispanic students. 

Organized by Director of Innovations in Honors Program Juan Antonio Alonso, the “Meet, Greet, and Learn: Mi Experiencia” event was held on Wednesday, Sept. 28 in UTC’s Guerry Center. Plus, food from the local restaurant, Guacamole, was served free of charge for the first 60 people. 

Alonso previously worked at Chattanooga State Community College, where an event like this one was held. Upon joining the UTC community, he decided that bringing this opportunity was necessary for UTC students. “The purpose of the event is to give some visibility to Latino students on our campus,” he said. “There are about 650 Hispanic students at UTC and often I feel like we don’t get the visibility that other groups on campus get.” Additionally, Alonso said that Hispanic students make up 5% of the enrollment, and that number continues to grow each year. 

There were 16 panelists who spoke to the audience, covering topics from racism to language barriers to the sense of belonging (or lack thereof) that they have experienced in their lives. 

Before the event began, one speaker, Kelly Escobar, mentioned how she felt before joining the panel. “I’m super nervous, but it’s really exciting to be able to share my experience as a Hispanic student at UTC,” she said. “I’m first gen, so [I’m] just trying to get out the word of what it’s like being first gen and Hispanic.”

The first panelist, Natalie Sedeño Vega, spoke about her experience moving to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents and how she has navigated the language barrier she faced. She mentioned how important it is to encourage others who are speaking English as a second language: “Please don’t make fun of them when they pronounce something, because it’s really hard for them,” she said. “They are trying to speak another language.”

Another panelist, Briana Morelli, shared her family’s Argentine heritage and her journey of learning more about where her family is from: “What I learned about it was a lot to grapple with; I learned about its extensive history with colonialism and the massive amounts of European immigration that displaced a lot of people there,” she said. To Morelli, there is much importance in acknowledging the history of where one is from, even if that history is difficult to digest. 

For Seth Courtad, the experience growing up Hispanic started in upstate New York, where he was one of the few Hispanic children at his school. He moved to Texas with his family, which he said was a culture shock. “I found that the racism against hispanic people in Texas was a lot more vitriolic and a lot more prominent,” he said. “That was the first time that I had ever openly experienced someone throwing a slur at me.” For Courtad, the word he best explained his experience was “otherness.” From a disconnect from “general American white culture” and a disconnect from his Hispanic culture, he said he has had difficulty finding his spot to fit in. But, in coming to UTC, he has found opportunities to connect with his culture and identity through community and support. 

Alondra Maria Gomez-Nuñez is from Mexico and moved to the U.S. around the age four or five. “I went to predominantly white schools,” she said. “I can probably also count on one hand the number of Latino students in school.” Gomez-Nuñez said that she learned growing up what it means to be undocumented. “I learned that my life from that point forward until something changed legislatively was going to be very difficult.” For Gomez-Nuñez, finding and obtaining opportunities was far more difficult than it was for her peers who were born into different circumstances. “Being able to access higher education was quite literally one of the biggest struggles that I had to face,” she said. “I haven’t always felt welcome at UTC and I’m not afraid to say it…It is part of the university’s work that needs to be done…UTC could do better at supporting undocumented students.” Gomez-Nuñez explained that her support system is what helped her navigate difficulties at UTC, and she learned that sometimes one just needs to step away and take a break. “For any of you who may reach burnout, it’s okay to admit it and it’s okay to give yourself rest.” 

At the conclusion of the event, students congratulated and supported one another. Many of the students who attended the event are part of the Hispanic Outreach Leadership Association (HOLA), “a student group on campus working to raise awareness about Latin American cultures and issues,” according to their Instagram page. 

Juan Antonio Alonso reflected on the importance of the event, and how he came to realize the importance of giving a space for Hispanic students to share stories with each other. “Many people in the audience have similar life stories like them, so I think it’s really powerful for those who perhaps are not ready to share their story to hear those who have come to that place,” he said. Alonso moved to the U.S. from Spain at the age of 28, and said he never heard stories like those that were shared at the event until he became a professor.

“I think for anyone who hasn’t had an experience like that growing up, I think that it’s really powerful to actually hear individual stories about what it is [like] being a Latino at UTC,” Alonso said. 

Reflecting on the event and the speakers, it’s clear that no two experiences are the same. Each student has faced different challenges and navigated them in their own way. One sentiment that was largely shared among the panelists was the importance of community and finding somewhere to belong. As these stories are shared and awareness is raised, the hope that remains is that Hispanic and Latino students will be supported and given the communities and opportunities that they need to thrive.

Here is a list of all of the students who spoke at the event: 

Natalie Sedeño Vargas

Sabrina Pham

Adriel Poo Armas

Sophia Kennan

Martina Guox Vicente 

Brianna Morelli 

Mayra Salgado

Seth Courtad

Gianni Rasnick

Joanna Maldonado 

Kelly Jacinto Escobar 

Alex de la Cruz

Briana Bautista 

Stephanie Loa

Deimer Ordóñez Gómez

Alondra Maria Gomez-Nuñez 

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