When I walked into the Casa Zapata lounge for my first in-person speaker event, I already knew it would be among the top events I would attend at Stanford. The room buzzed with excitement, most of the seats were full besides the one in the back corner I managed to snag, and a purple and green PowerPoint was projected on the TV with what would be ahead.
The night featured four Oakland youth community organizers — Dwayne Davis, Mica Smith-Dahl, Denilson Garibo and Natalie Gallegos — who starred in the documentary “Homeroom.” The film discussed their plights and pivots of their work, spanning from getting youth more involved in the community, reallocating Oakland Unified School District’s police budget for student needs and participation in the Black Lives Matter Protests during the summer of 2020. There was a comfortable atmosphere, the audience being all ears to listen to their experiences and perspectives. Every answer the panelists gave earned snaps, cheers and hums of agreement and satisfaction. At one point, Gallegos and Smith-Dahl delved into the problems of gentrification: rather than infiltrating areas like Oakland, we, as Stanford students, should “reinvest into our own communities back home.”
Once the discussion wrapped up — students then took turns to ask inquisitive questions about organizing in their own communities — I left. It was dark outside, autumn finally reaching Stanford with the amount of sunshine inching away each day. The sky was crystal clear, the stars and rain clouds painting the world with the full moon’s brightness, serving as a beacon for my way back to my dorm. The wheels turned as I unlocked my bike and started pedaling, and as cool air entered my system, I began spiraling too.
Seven months. I have been on Stanford’s campus for the majority of 2021, since March, and haven’t been in my hometown, Stockton, Calif., for more than a month in that time. I have grown accustomed to Stanford’s culture: from not knowing where any buildings were located to being a human GPS, meeting people in person whom I used to only see on screens via Zoom calls and promising new people to “catch up and get lunch” and learning the quirks and acronyms of the campus. (The latest thing I found out about has been the Steam Tunnels.) I found a new haven here, with expected ups and downs, but overall a life-changing experience.
Yet … this quarter is different. It’s my first time being one of many in crowded lecture halls, my first time having to bike and face the circle of death when trekking to class and first time being able to go in buildings other than dorms instead of just staring at the captivating architecture. First time for many things. And now I have an unusual yearning for my hometown that can only be described as one thing: homesickness.
My relationship with Stockton has been a complex one. Growing up, adults always told me that college would be the key to my success. Didn’t matter where I went and what I studied; as long as I had a degree, I could help those who couldn’t achieve greatness, help my family and finally, help myself.
Only, there was this running narrative: I needed to leave. That, if I stayed, I couldn’t grow and make a life for myself. That, if I stayed there, I’d turn out like everyone else. That, if I stayed there, I could never become anything more than what I was now. I’d be stuck in a cycle of hurt, trauma and poverty. Princess Vongchanh ‘23, also from Stockton and who attended the same high school as I did, introduced a behavioral term coined by Stockton Scholars called a “brain-drain” in another article with The Daily. Essentially, brain-drain involves the idea that “to achieve success, you have to leave the city,” and, “to maintain it, you have to continue cultivating your success in some other sphere.” Both college and success were intertwined for me and, so, it was almost fate that I would eventually leave. And this mindset that filled every space I entered in Stockton made me resent my home, despising everything there.
High school came soon, and during my freshman year, amidst the 2016 election chaos, there was a spring of hope: Michael Tubbs ‘12 was elected mayor. The years that followed were radically important, both to the community of Stockton and myself; along with launching universal basic income, the SEED initiative and the documentary “Stockton on My Mind,” Tubbs also piloted Stockton Scholars, which I became involved with during my senior year. It is a scholarship, support and ambassador program for students in Stockton, most of whom are first-generation, low-income (FLI). Having the chance to meet many students from across the city as well as work on panels and events I was passionate about made me find a new love for my community. I felt like I had a voice finally. There was a sense of progress that grew and was sparkling new, a rose defying the bounds of concrete and finally blooming.
Then the pandemic happened. Three weeks of spring break turned into one year of staying home. With milestones like graduation, my 18th birthday and starting college being confined to my house, the 2020 Election (with even more chaos) also happened. And Tubbs lost to Republican Kevin Lincoln. I helplessly watched, not being able to vote in the mayoral race due to living in county limits, as Tubbs received more than 10,000 fewer votes than his opponent. And I was in disbelief when many voters based their perception of Tubbs off a misinformation and hate campaign. My confusion soon became anger: how can my community, a place that aches to become better, shun part of the solution? How dare we begin to heal a wound, a wound that has been bleeding for generations, only to reinjure it again?
Soon, I was whisked off to Stanford during the spring quarter of my frosh year, leaving my home, my friends and family, hurt, confusion and resentment behind. Stanford was nothing like Stockton. It was quiet at night, crickets and bike gears audible in contrast to loud Spanish music from parties, screeches of tires from cars going too fast and gunshots ringing in distant neighborhoods. People were kind: I met those from my classes in real life, interacted with upperclassmen I worked with in clubs, got to know new faces and found a group within the safety of Burbank’s walls. Stanford, its campus and life being kept away for so long due to COVID-19, was finally in my possession, only requiring a turn of my dorm’s doorknob to bask in the Bay Area sun and numerous opportunities. Spring 2021 felt magical; the college experience I heard about for years finally was there, at my fingertips. I never forgot Stockton, but it was so distant. A different life. It felt not as important.
Now, as I am typing this during my sophomore year, a slump in my Stanford career, I yearn for Stockton. I’ve been running away for these seven months and I miss it. I miss my community.
I miss the loud music, the ethnic food, the route I would take to school, La Superior and my abuelo’s house. I miss my backyard, miss my pets: my German Shepherd, mutt cats and turtles. I miss my father’s barbecues, the corner of the couch and light I would use to read, the spot on the kitchen table I would always do my homework at and the block I would ride my bike around. I miss the Stockton Scholars building, the downtown movie theatre and going on top of parking garages to see a view of the port’s waterfront, water from the Sierra Nevada mountains going through Stockton via the San Joaquin River and heading toward Mount Diablo, eventually reaching the Bay. I have been in four different dorms these past seven months, living an almost nomadic lifestyle, and each one has felt less like home. I miss the feeling of home, and in turn, I realize that communities that you’ve made in the past are so important to carry with you.
Recently, after recommendations from Stanford students, I listened to the “Invisibilia” podcast by NPR and the three episodes on the 209Times, misinformation, the disappearance of mainstream local news and the 2020 Election letdown. And man, am I worried about my community. All the problems — rampant homelessness, poverty, gun violence — reaching almost every corner on the South and Eastside, stay in Stockton when everyone leaves, from the outsider experiencing the joint to the students being pushed out. The cycle of trauma, feeling voiceless against the structures of life, oppression and resentment that each Stocktonian harbors persists. It will continue until we, as a community, break the cycle and heal.
As an FLI student, there’s this pressure to be something great with the education I get, something larger than life, and to reinvent the world for the better because I can. While I can’t guarantee that, I can make a different promise: I will return to Stockton. I am not a savior, the fairy godmother who will wave the wand of Stanford money and intelligence and fix every problem there, but I am and will always be a part of the community, a resilient and beautiful community composed of so much love and potential. I am a boomerang, thrown so far that you think it’s long gone, out-of-sight enough to think that it’s missing, but it always manages to find its way back into your palm. I promise you, I will be back.