Being cold-called for the first time in class is the biggest fear for most 1Ls. Looking back now, I thought I would remember what questions the professor asked, I thought I would remember my horribly incorrect answer and the embarrassment I would feel. But no, what I remember the most is how my Miami-Cuban accent reverberated through the classroom.
My accent, my voice, did not sound like the voices of my classmates. It was definitely different and it made me realize that I was different. The funny thing is my “accent” is actually non-existent in Miami. I know many people who have much stronger accents back home, and I actually sound “American” in comparison. But here, in Cambridge, I definitely had an accent.
And it might not have been a problem, except that to me, my accent sounded “unintelligent.” Suddenly, I didn’t sound eloquent, my vocabulary wasn’t expansive, and my voice more resembled the voices of the girls in the parody “Sh*t Miami Girls Say” than those of my peers. I never felt this way about anyone else’s accent, but suddenly, I internalized that my own voice was not on par with HLS standards, and thus, everyone would think I had nothing valuable to offer.
Compounded with the fact that I already suffered from “imposter syndrome,” this new realization — that I was different, a minority (who was used to being a majority) — really lowered my self-esteem. So I did the most natural thing for me: I stopped talking. I lost my voice. In class, I only spoke when called on. It’s not that I had nothing to say; it’s just I didn’t think that what I had to say was relevant or important.
It took me the rest of 1L (and some of 2L) to find my voice. I rediscovered my voice through La Alianza, the Latinx law student association at HLS. Even though our group hails from many different countries, from Colombia to Puerto Rico to Peru, I felt that I was at home with La Alianza members.
The Latinx experience is not monolithic. Latinx people originate from many countries with diverse cultures, foods, and customs, come from different socioeconomic levels, and have different immigration experiences. Still, there are many commonalities — above all, many of us have an accent or speak a second language. Immersing myself in La Alianza made me realize that people who are like me also belong at HLS. And what’s more, HLS did not just pick us, we also picked HLS and we worked extremely hard to be here.
Slowly, my self-confidence grew as I surrounded myself with a network of people who I could look up to. My mindset really began to change when I heard Margaret Montoya speak at a La Alianza lunch event midway through the Fall semester. Margaret Montoya was the first Latina to attend HLS back in the 1970s. She now teaches law at the University of New Mexico and has devoted her career to advocating for women and Latinx students. Hearing her story, how she experienced prejudice from people around her who didn’t think she would (or even should) be accepted, made me realize that she paved the way for me to be at HLS. I knew that I had to make the most of the opportunities afforded to me here.
I also remember sharing a class with a 2L who I met through La Alianza. She arguably also has a Latinx “accent” and she inspired me by the way she always participated and shared her opinion in class. She contributed insightful and intelligent comments. I looked up to her and she became a mentor and a friend. She made me realize that I can do this too!
Not everyone will react the same way as I did. Some people won’t allow their voices to be lost. But I know some first-year students might feel the way I did. My charge to you is to make yourself heard. Your experiences and backgrounds are important and can provide needed perspectives that will be lacking if you don’t speak up. Find friends, an organization, classes, activities, that provide that space where you can feel at home at HLS. Make sure that you expand the sense of confidence that you gain from that “home” to other places in HLS that might seem alien and uncomfortable to you.
For me, my “home” had to do with finding people who shared one aspect of my identity — mi Latinidad — but for others, it may be another type of group. I hope that all first year students who might feel this “imposter syndrome,” this lack of belonging, can find their “home” at HLS and have their voices heard, accent or no accent. And know, for I was there too.
This piece was a part of the 2016 orientation issue. To read more, click here.