Everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes, we don’t realize we have something remarkable to share with the world, but even the simplest stories can inspire and uplift us. Neil Arcellana ’24 has heard stories from all kinds of students: high schoolers from low-income neighborhoods, first-generation college students, and students with no interest in college. Each individual seemed to have their own story. But as a Filipino immigrant coming to Stockton, California, in 2019, Arcellana wasn’t looking to tell his story; he was trying to keep up and not get lost in this significant change in his life.
Arcellana moved to the U.S. with his father and sister while his mother was still waiting for her visa approval. Their life in the States was drastically different from life in the Philippines, one that he hadn’t been expecting. “In the Philippines, my life was set up,” he remarked. He knew the trajectory of his life, but in the States, he wasn’t sure how to succeed. He was a high school senior when he moved, thinking there would be opportunities and resources in school. However, communication was difficult; no one could understand him through his Filipino accent.
“I was kind of bullied because of my accent, [it was a] deep accent actually, so no one really helped me,” he recalled. Despite the challenges in communication, Arcellana did everything he could to do well in high school and graduate on time. Yet nothing seemed to be enough. Despite his efforts, his counselor asked him to repeat his senior year. “I said it was okay but deep inside I was shattered into pieces knowing that everything that I did [would] only go to waste.”
The transition was already challenging, but then he was hit with another major hurdle: the 2020 pandemic. Everyone was forced indoors and online. Adapting to American life was already difficult, but trying to do it online had taken things to another level. “It was really hard adjusting to the lifestyle where I only met my family every day,” he recalls. As if moving to a new country and the pandemic wasn’t stressful enough, Arcellana was also discovering his queer identity around the same time.
“Growing up, I knew I was different from other guys, and teachers would often find me playing with girls instead of guys. They would tell this to my parents and my parents would question me if I’m gay or not,” he recalls. He hid it from his conservative family and his Catholic school teachers in the Philippines. But he found other ways to express himself in supportive spaces. However, at the height of the pandemic, surrounded daily by his family, Arcellana didn’t want to do anything that would draw attention to his queerness.
Even the concept of going to college was another source of stress. When a classmate asked what school he would attend after graduation, he replied, “‘Wait…we need to apply for college?!’ I was so distraught. I didn’t know what to answer.” As a low-income, first-generation student, he had viewed college as a long shot; his focus had just been to graduate from high school on time.
With all the stress compounding upon him, Arcellana’s mental health suffered, but he later found a way to leverage this new reality to his advantage. “When I was in an in-person setting, I was kind of shy to interact because they might criticize me to my face,” he said, “[but] when I [was] on Zoom I didn’t really feel anything. I’m just talking to myself.”
He learned to improve his public speaking skills by studying his speech and physicality during Zoom classes and presentations. “I always try to think, ‘Oh how is the person looking at me?’ I’m always curious about the things I do, and I just leveraged that and made it an opportunity.”
Then he caught a break. Due to the pandemic, colleges and universities were relaxing their admission requirements. This meant Arcellana had a shot at graduating high school on time and attending college.
He enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College and sought out every program he could for his collegiate success. Eventually, he settled on the Stockton Scholars program, which provides scholarships to four-year college or university students. But Arcellana was reluctant. In this program, he would have to interact regularly with his peers and mentors. “I was kind of shy to talk because I might experience the same thing that I experienced when I was in my senior year,” he explained.
On the contrary, the program staff worked closely with Arcellana, giving him the confidence to step out and share his experiences. Ultimately, it was Arcellana’s own perseverance that opened doors for him. Through the Stockton Scholars College Ambassador program, Arcellana became an advocate for students’ access to college resources; he spoke on panels and summits to socio-economically impacted high school seniors about resources for their college careers.
He applied to Cal and was awarded The Achievement Award Program (TAAP) and Leadership Award (TLA) scholarships, two awards offered by the Cal Alumni Association. Arcellana immediately began building his life on campus, including accessing TAAP’s program resources that help students find community and mentorship on-campus and achieve success beyond UC Berkeley. He plans to be a CPA at a large firm once he graduates.
As a queer immigrant from the Philippines, Arcellana wasn’t sure he would have a chance to succeed in the U.S. But what started as a journey to graduate from high school on time later evolved into a mission to advocate for other students like himself to have the resources to achieve higher education. “I didn’t really have a mission, but I had a story to tell,” he said. “I think that’s the reason I got here, to Cal. My story is all about being positive even if the circumstances [are] not quite what I expected. I always look beyond the problem.”
Students: If you would like to apply for The Achievement Award Program or The Leadership Award, visit the Cal Alumni Association Application Portal. Open only to prospective first years and junior transfers.