Below is a copy of Sarabi’s moving speech at the recent 10th Anniversary Gala where she spoke about her experiences in the program, her experiences at UC Berkeley, and a special message to all of the students striving to become the first generation college students…
…Thank you Renato and thank you to everyone for coming along to celebrate the 10th anniversary of an organization that is very special to me.
My name is Sarabi Rodriguez and I’m in my second year at Berkeley where I am studying Media Studies. This is my eighth year in the Access program and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to come back down to San Diego and share my story.
I joined Access because of my cousin Ana. Ana was a part of the second graduating class of Access and was part of the first team that brought home a national championship. She is an amazing individual that has always been a role model for me. She talked about the opportunities she received by being part of the Access program and I really wanted to join what seemed like a fun thing to be a part of.
When I joined Access I signed a contract. The contract itself is simple. When you sign it you agree to come to practice, to participate in community service, to keep your GPA up, etc. You essentially agree to behave. The contract however, leaves a lot out.
When I joined Access, I didn’t exactly know it, but I joined a second family, and I don’t say this lightly, Renato actually adopts you as one of his children, I now have over 100 siblings now which makes Christmas expensive. I also joined the world of squash, and encountered this new world of opportunities that I was completely unaware of. That is because as a seventh grader, I feel I didn’t have the maturity to understand this. As I later realized, as a Preuss and Access student, everything comes through delayed gratification. On your first day of school at Preuss they tell you that you are going to college, on the next day you hear that Access is really going to help you to get there, but at that point you cant comprehend it, college is 6 years away. It’s easy to forget what you are working for, and this was certainly the case for me.
Being a squash player on the West Coast (and at Preuss) was also very tough. Very few people know of the sport and if I had a dollar for all the people who said, “squash, like the vegetable?” I wouldn’t have needed scholarships to go to college.
It was because of these early struggles to connect with the sport that when I was an 8th grader, in the midst of my pre-teen rebellion, I was determined to quit. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, no one had ever quit Access, but I was determined. I practiced what I was going to tell Renato at least 50 times, and I walked into his office confident that when I left I would be done with squash. I was so wrong.
Renato sat there and listened to my argument until I was done. I was expecting an “okay” or “you have a good point” something like that but he simply said “no.” I hated him……But to this day I am eternally grateful that Renato didn’t let me go. Because less than a year later, I fell in love with squash. I started working on becoming a better player and the more I improved, the more I wanted to play. That same year, I was able to travel to Williams College in Massachusetts to play in the NUSEA individual tournaments and this was a game changer for me. Not only was It was the first time that I felt the thrill of competing in a serious tournament with kids that were just like me – it was the first time that I really felt what it was like to be a part of the squash community and a true student athlete.
Fast forward to Senior year and everything started to pay off. Through Access, I was able to take SAT prep classes – something that I never would have been able to afford on my own – and they made sure that I was well prepared for the college application process, having tutors that read over our college essays. We also got selected to participate in unique nationwide programs hosted by NUSEA that not only were extremely fun, but they helped build our resume and distinguish us as strong candidates. Because of Access, we opened up our minds to the possibilities of attending colleges on the East Coast that we had only dreamt of, and had the opportunity to tour them through our college trip that senior year. We were given so much help to aid our admission process, and looking back, I think the most valuable thing that Access gave to me during this whole process were people that believed in me.
Applying to universities as a first generation college student is frightening, you doubt yourself a lot knowing that there are candidates whose families have gone through this process for generations and generations. It is not that we are less qualified than them, far from it, it’s simply that we haven’t seen someone from our family “make it” and doubt that we will be the ones to break that cycle. But the amazing thing about Access, is that they believe in you from the start and they never never stop. This was huge for me, I had a lot of bumps along the road, but every single time, someone was reinforcing to me that I was going to go to college.
Getting accepted to Berkeley was a real plot twist. I knew I was going to college, but I never thought I would get in to Berkeley – after all this is a school that has an element in the periodic table named after them! But I did. It was the most incredible feeling ever, it was honestly a plot twist that is going to shape my entire life. I was so excited but I was also so, so scared. I mean obviously I had to go to Berkeley. It was Berkeley!!! But it was also 8 hours away from home, I wouldn’t be receiving a full ride like I would be at other schools, and it was going to be a lot more academically challenging. However if there is something that I learned from my experiences leading up to that moment, it was that nothing was ever going to be easy, but I knew I was capable of succeeding.
When I got to Berkeley, it was a little scary – I was the only one from my high school that had gone to Berkeley. I heard that when you got to college, you needed to find “your community” so I did – I joined the squash team. It was a home away from home, and not only was I playing the sport that I loved so much, two of my teammates were Access Alumni.
I also got more involved with the urban squash movement when I was offered the opportunity to work at Squash Drive, the NUSEA program in Oakland. I really wanted to give back and now I have been working there for about a year. My time working at Squash Drive has helped me develop a whole new level of appreciation for both Access and Squash. For the first time, I am witness to the other side of programming. I am a staff member instead of a student. This has helped me understand a lot of the reasoning behind the rules, the structure, and most importantly how fortunate I was to be a part of an urban squash program.
Sometimes I feel a little silly having to enforce rules that I used to hate when I was part of Access. For example, if our kids don’t bring their squash uniform, they’re not allowed to practice. I remember forgetting my uniform so many times when I was in high school and I certainly didn’t like getting points taken off for something that I thought was ridiculous. However, now that I work at Squash Drive I understand!
There are times that Pamela, our head coach, plans an excellent practice for the kids and a lot of them miss out on the opportunity to play just because it would be dangerous to play without their proper equipment. I used to think that “missing on practice was no big deal” but through my process of learning how to be a coach, I have learned that every practice is essential to becoming a better player.
I now get frustrated when one of my kids doesn’t want to attempt something because they don’t think they’ll be good at it. But I know deep down that they are capable of it, if only they try and continue to practice! I laugh at myself now because I think this is exactly how Yuri felt when he was my coach, I just needed to try and practice in order for me to improve but I recall at times being so stubborn. Luckily, Yuri, like all the Access staff, never gave up on me and it resulted in me playing in the illustrious SoCal league during my senior year of high school, which was a great reflection of my hard work both on and off the court and the amazing bond I developed with Yuri and all of my teammates.
I am so happy at Berkeley, honestly I’m in love. It is the school for me in every way. It hasn’t been easy at all, but everything has worked out. In the end I had to get a job to cover the expenses that financial aid wasn’t going to cover but I find myself loving my job too! The workload is extremely challenging but I love everything that I am learning.
The Bay Area…. is an incredible place. The squash community is amazing there as well! I recently had the chance to attend the NetSuite Open Squash Championships in San Francisco, and Nick Mathew (the world champion squash player from England) casually approached me and asked me about my squash career (it was so cool!)
Looking back, I was extremely fortunate to have been selected to be a part of Access. It would have been very difficult to be where I am today without their support. So thank you for the encouragement, for introducing me to such an amazing sport, and most importantly thank you so much for believing in me.
I wanted to end on a quick message to all of my fellow students here tonight, and share my own words of encouragement. As you dream of your futures, and as we grow together as part of a broader family, let us remember that if there is no struggle, there is no progress, and that progress in our own communities, in our own unique corner of the world, will only happen when kids like us decide to work hard to beat the odds and reach our potential. Embrace this opportunity we have been given with both hands and help lead those that will follow. That is my challenge to you tonight and one which I know you can achieve, just stick to it.