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Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22 Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22 / CJ Poloka / Cal Alumni Association

The Difference Community Makes

Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22 is an Achievement Award Program (TAAP) Scholar in UC Berkeley’s Class of 2022. Below is an excerpt from their speech delivered at this spring’s TAAP Senior Brunch.

May 30, 2022

Before I tell my story, I want to take a moment to shed light on all the individuals that have faced death, cruelty, and loss immigrating or crossing borders. Among those immigrants was my father. He was a hard-working, resilient, and supportive man who encouraged me to strive for my goals till his last breath. My father raised a warrior; a warrior that has lost some battles won some battles, and is not afraid to face oncoming ones. 

Leslie (right) with her father, Leobardo Cruz. Leslie’s father was one of her biggest supporters. / Courtesy of Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22

My father crossed the border to provide a better life for his kids. For many years, he worked two jobs until he got sick and was placed on disability for the rest of his life. Even with the illnesses he faced, he never gave up on supporting us. He became a stay-at-home dad and a great chef, mentor, and tutor. One of the things I always like to remember is how he sat with me to study, from kindergarten all the way until my second year of high school. In fact, he even taught me the multiplication tables before kindergarten! 

With all the good memories in life, we also have bad ones. Sophomore year of high school, my dad’s illness got worse and once he was checked into the hospital he never made it out. But even as he lay there on that hospital bed, he always asked how things at home were and how I was doing in school. I aspire to be as selfless and hardworking as my father. 

When I lost my father, I lost my biggest supporter and gained a multitude of responsibilities. At 15, I had to start paying bills, writing checks, reading documents, supporting my mom mentally, and serving as my sister’s guardian. Things got difficult at home, apart from school, extracurriculars, and work, I had to be a caretaker. I had to make sacrifices for my family, like not going to social events and picking up an extra shift at work to help out. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be the person I am today without these hardships that shaped the individual that got accepted into Berkeley. 

I was ecstatic to begin my journey at Cal, but there was always a weighing feeling that created stress and fear. I was afraid that I would not be able to pay for school. I was afraid that I would not fit in. I was afraid that I would fail and not be able to handle the workload. But I reminded myself to take it one step at a time because I wasn’t only here for my dreams, but for my sisters’, my father’s, and the other kids’ from my community that dream of higher education.

This space taught me that a valuable tool to combat imposter syndrome is to show up as yourself because you know your own worth and when you finally realize it, you become unstoppable.

Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22

On July 23, 2018, as I was having a meltdown and questioning my worth, I got an email saying that I’d been accepted into the TAAP program. I never thought a program would impact me as much as the Alumni Scholars Program has. I not only received financial support but a family and a community. I faced other struggles on this campus. I faced mental health issues, I faced self-doubt, I faced burnt out, and I faced a lack of belonging. I’ve been rejected by my own people because they believed my struggles weren’t valid since I was white-passing, with blonde hair and green eyes. I understand this, but to be rejected from your own community on campus hurts. But I found my community with the Alumni Scholars Program and with the Educational Opportunity Program. 

Group photo of friends
Leslie (left) with her coworkers at the Educational Opportunity Program. Leslie was a peer academic counselor for EOP. / Courtesy of Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22

I cannot emphasize how much these programs have helped me grow. As a freshman, I lost sight of who I was and who I wanted to be. I struggled to make friends and spent most of my time studying. But the alumni scholars program hosted social events, study sessions, and workshops. I met some of the greatest people at these events, and I’m glad I get to call them my friends today. I want to shine a light on [Alumni Scholars Program staff] Yoyo and Fritzie for always reminding us that we belong here, and we deserve to take up space. I’ve been told by my so-called family that I would not succeed because I was a Hispanic woman whose place was in the kitchen. Look at me now. Growing up and hearing comments like these definitely stuck with me. But this community taught me how to be more confident. This space taught me that a valuable tool to combat imposter syndrome is to show up as yourself because you know your own worth and when you finally realize it, you become unstoppable.

This program helped me reach out to Haas alumni and hear about their journey. This support helped me get into the Haas undergraduate program where I gained knowledge that will allow me to help low-income businesses flourish with the use of social media marketing. I made sure Fritzie and Yoyo knew that I was an “asset” to be used and if any scholars had questions about Haas or UC Berkeley they could reach out to me. I wanted to help other students who felt lost on this campus, so I became a Peer Academic Counselor for EOP. I learned how to listen, how to give back, and how to advocate for myself so that I could advocate for others. 

Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22 in front of the Campanile
Leslie Cruz-Cabrera ’22 / CJ Poloka / Cal Alumni Association

By being in this space, I realized the need for more community spaces for students of color on campus. We need more safe study spaces and spaces that are free of judgment. Most importantly, I want to see more Cal staff making changes that help students financially, like having online access to textbooks and free printing. I want to see a system in place that allows students to share their voices, concerns, and ideas on how the Cal community can be more welcoming and accessible. I want to see staff present in all events, not only the ones that have a huge turnout. At the end of the day, showing up is one of the biggest ways you can support students on this campus. By being present you prove to us that our voices matter and that you are hearing our concerns. 

As I stand on this podium, I want to thank the staff, donors, my peers, and my donor Mary Tuncer for investing in me. You did not only help me but you helped my family and my community. You have started a chain reaction that will impact low-income and first-generation students like me. I hope to be in your shoes one day paying it forward. I look forward to taking my experiences from Cal into the workforce, whether in marketing, education, or customer development—it is yet to be determined but boy am I excited. So, thank you for believing in us, in me, even when I did not. 

Alumni: Learn how you can support The Achievement Award Program.

Students: If you would like to apply for The Achievement Award Program, visit the Cal Alumni Association Application Portal. Open only to prospective first years and junior transfers.