I did Q&A’s with a few winners of the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Beat the Odds” scholarship winners and was inspired by their stories. Here is one of them:
“ I am standing before you as the living metaphor, a reminder of kids that grow up in war zones, of kids that grow up without childhoods; of kids in need of a home, a father or mother, and of kids without futures, unless those of us who have the power to change their lives are willing to take action.” Wesley Alcenat at the 2006 “Beat the Odds” celebration.
“If it takes a village to raise you, it will take a village to also help you succeed. Don’t believe the hype or the myth that tells you to raise yourself by your bootstraps. No one in this world makes it by raising themselves by their own bootstraps. Just as it is logically and physically impossible to do that, it is impossible to find success without combining a sense of personal responsibility with the support, love, and the nurturing of a community.” Wesley Alcenat in my interview with him last week.
Westenley came to the United States from Haiti, where both his parents were killed by soldiers and he witnesses countless atrocities. With the help of his grandparents and a supportive educational system, Wes was able to overcome his past and move forward in life, but never forgot where he came from and others like him who suffer so much. His amazing story continues today.
How do you like college? What are you studying and what’s your favorite class at the moment?
Although I am currently out of college, I am still in the college setting and love it very much. I graduated in May 2010 with a bachelor in Political Science/History. I am attending Columbia University in New York, where I am enrolled in the American History program as a Ph.D candidate. At the moment, I enjoy my class on American politics, called “Themes in American Political Development.”
Are you involved in any extracurricular activities or volunteering?
Outside of school I am part of a school reform program in which graduate students like me are paired with high school and junior high teachers teaching American history. The hope is that I will get an idea for what it’s like to teach and in the process teachers will benefit from my “expertise” in history. As of a week ago, I began taking Tango classes on Thursday nights.
I just read your bio and was especially interested to see that you’d eventually like to receive a Master’s Degree in Public Health, which seems especially relevant in the wake of the cholera epidemic currently causing so many problems in Haiti. Are you hoping to work with diseases like cholera related to poverty, or have you changed directions?
That’s a good question. My interests are diverse and constantly evolving. While I am still interested in Public Health, I have changed course. I am still deeply interested in issues of social justice, philanthropy, and the well-being of the poor and the vulnerable. This interest led me to take a role in helping to find funds to help earthquake victims in Haiti while I was still in college. I don’t believe that I will ever lose my love of service. That is why I aspire to someday end my life in the non-profit sector, either as an official of a non-profit organization or a key player in some other way, shape or form. I am driven by the crusade to end or alleviate poverty; if not poverty, than the ending of systemic impoverishment as we know it. Abject poverty is inhumane, unacceptable and from my perspective, something we can completely eradicate if the will is there. My direction to education sustains this position as I believe education is the most effective and perhaps proven tool for tackling poverty and provides the most returns of any type of social reforms.
What are some of your dreams for the future?
As a follow up to the answer to your question above and also to answer this question: Rerouting my ambitions to academia has invited skepticism by family and friends alike that there is no place for academics in social change/justice. I disagree emphatically about this notion that intellectuals are engage in the pursuit of things disconnected from the everyday concerns of practical life. Nothing can be farther from the truth. My decision to study history is embedded in my long-term interests with the practical concerns of education, economic justice, and producing model citizens for a democratic society. Although my interests in political life and philanthropic service is still very strong, I believe I will be most useful when I can connect my aspirations for a future of progress with the knowledge that our struggles right now in the present are a result of our past failures. How better of a country would we be if every politician could echo this point. Instead, we’ve seen a culture of anti-intellectualism that is in itself a shorthand for maintaining the status quo. And that means, further deteriorating the very conditions that organizations like CDF has for decades tried to ameliorate. How can we try to reform society without knowing why reform is needed in the first place? History is memory, and a nation without memory is a country without any collections of who it is, what it is, and ultimately it doesn’t know itself. That is why I believe in the long-term, my education will prove to be an investment in making me a better public servant in whatever capacity, wherever and whenever that opportunity may arise in the future.
What advice would you give kids struggling with adversity to help them succeed as you have?
Although I hate to simplify, any kids who can make good on their understanding and execution of the following quotes will have increased their chances at succeeding in their endeavors:
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today…Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research” -Malcolm X (Malcolm is not saying that you have to become a historian, but that it’s almost impossible to know where you need to go, if you don’t know where you are coming from.)
“Education has in America’s whole history been the major hope for improving the individual and society.” -Gunnar Myrdal