Reyna: Being Hispanic at CWRU

Christian Reyna, Staff Writer

I grew up in Alton, Texas, a small town near McAllen, Texas—a few minutes drive from Mexico. My parents immigrated from Mexico as young adults to provide a better future to their children. I learned Spanish before learning English in school since my parents don’t speak English. My entire life, I have always been grateful and appreciative of my Mexican heritage. I feel blessed to have such a vibrant culture to call home, especially whenever we cooked our cultural recipes, watched the Mexican national soccer team on TV or when my cousins visited during Christmas. 

Although I was born and raised in the United States and am grateful for it, I have always remembered my roots.

Coming to Case Western Reserve University in 2018 was a culture shock for me. I went from living in an area predominantly Hispanic, with a population larger than 80%, to an institution where only 11% of current undergraduates identify as Latinx. Additionally, as a Texan, I felt even more out of place in the Midwest. I got so used to having my border experiences back home that I initially felt lost when I arrived at CWRU. I couldn’t find my go-to seasonings at the grocery store, I didn’t have access to all the good tacos and only a few people spoke Spanish, even though Spanish is more common than English back home. 

I was scared. I thought I made the wrong decision leaving the comfort of my home as an 18-year-old. What was I doing in the Midwest alone? Would I even finish engineering school knowing that my parents didn’t even go to college? How would I survive the Cleveland winter, given the coldest temperature I experienced back home was in the upper 30 degrees Fahrenheit. These were the questions that were going through my mind every day during my first weeks here. I felt out of place as one of the few Hispanics on campus. I wanted to go back home.

As I start my fourth year at CWRU, those feelings still seem familiar, although some don’t feel as daunting as they once did that first year. I’ve gotten used to Cleveland. The cold weather doesn’t bother me as much anymore. However, the most significant factor that made me stay was finding those like me.

In my first semester here, I joined CWRU’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). Although we were few, we had a close bond, allowing every member to be their best. I quickly developed my professional, leadership and academic skills by finding a community that supported me and had similar experiences to me. I met other Hispanic students with similar interests. Because of SHPE, I felt more comfortable being a Hispanic engineering student, and thus, became a more successful engineering student.

Alongside SHPE, I also found comfort in La Alianza, CWRU’s Hispanic and Latinx student organization. It was there that I found the community to celebrate my culture, but also learn about other cultures, since La Alianza represents all Latin American countries. I learned so much from Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Peruvians and even fellow Mexicans. I found a place where I wasn’t embarrassed to be myself and celebrate my culture.

Besides La Alianza and SHPE, I decided to pursue a Spanish minor to keep in touch with my roots. I learned more about Latin American culture and history, giving me a better understanding of how beautiful and complex my heritage is. I grew up only knowing Mexican culture, so learning about the entirety of Latin America has been such a rewarding experience. My Spanish professors always supported me, and I truly appreciate them and their work to teach me more about our beautiful heritage.

It wasn’t, and isn’t, easy to be a Hispanic student at CWRU. It’s rough going to class and not seeing someone like you. You feel out of place. You start thinking that you don’t belong and that you made the wrong decision. Despite being a fourth-year student, I still get these feelings. While I appreciate all the support the Latinx community has received through organizations and academics, CWRU still needs to do more work.  In the future, I hope there are more Hispanic students on campus and opportunities for them to succeed with a high retention rate.

One thing for certain, I would not be where I am today without my support system of SHPE, La Alianza and the Spanish department. All three have contributed so much to making me more comfortable at CWRU. They have provided me with avenues to remember my heritage and celebrate it while supporting me on my journey to becoming the first engineer in my family.

As we close out Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to take a moment to think back on my four years here at CWRU. It wasn’t easy, especially being a minority student, but my support system has contributed to my staying here. I encourage others to find a similar support system, as it makes a huge difference while at CWRU. Find your home away from home, and never forget your roots.